In-depth Essays

Free will scepticism is irrefutably in vogue in pop philosophy at the moment. Indeed, a 2015 study by Scientific American showed that 41% of their readership do not believe in free will. So what implications (if any) could this wave of free will scepticism have on our key liberal traditions and the ideas that underpin them? Liberal concepts of individual freedom, law and order, moral accountability, and consumer choice form the foundations of Western societies. Our justice systems, electoral processes and, often, public morality are firmly rooted in these ideas. At first glance, these concepts seem inherently at odds with determinism. I began writing this article as an exploration of what I saw as my own internal inconsistencies. I simultaneously found myself utterly convinced by arguments in favour of determinism, whilst also living by assumptions based on concepts such as free choice, moral accountability and law and order. Admittedly, my hope was to find a way of reconciling these ostensibly incompatible positions and get rid of that icky cognitive dissonance I’d been feeling. In this article, I try to understand how free will scepticism interacts with liberal ideas, and whether the two can conceivably coinhabit the same logical realm. I conclude that maybe they can – but that it doesn’t matter anyway.

But first, a quick clarification of terms is in order:

Determinism is a theory positing that every event is causally determined by events that occurred before it.

Free will is the idea that individuals can control their own actions and make free choices which are not entirely determined by past causes or external factors.

Free will scepticism is the position that true free will (as described above) does not exist.

The rise of free will scepticism

Prior to the advent of Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, free will scepticism had remained firmly sealed within the hallowed halls of physics and philosophy departments. Darwin’s theory, though, sparked a flurry of research on the roles of nature and nurture in human development. Some believed that nurture, upbringing, culture, and surroundings were the primary factors in the characteristics, behaviour and personality of each individual. Others claimed that genetic factors were the primary indicators of a child’s future success.

The nature-versus-nurture debate that ensued dragged free will scepticism into the limelight. Scientists and philosophers saw the deterministic implications of the ever-growing evidence in favour of the ‘nature’ side of the debate: if genes are the key indicators of how a person will develop, then free will and random chance have little to no role in that person’s future success. Further advances in the area of free will came in the 1980s, when neuroscientist Benjamin Libet completed ground-breaking research. In his now famous experiment, subjects were asked to flick their wrist at a random moment. Subjects recorded the time at which they consciously made the decision to do so. Libet found that subjects’ brains seemed to be preparing for action 0.35 seconds before the conscious mind ‘decided’ to act. The study suggests that the experience of consciously deciding to act could be an ex post facto reconstruction that gives us the illusion of free will. It is certainly worth noting that in recent years, this study has faced growing amounts of controversy over its validity. Several critics have suggested that the ebb and flow of normal brain activity caused the decision-making process, rather than the other way round (find out more about the controversy here).

Nevertheless, in an article for The Atlantic, Stephen Cave, in reference to Libet’s study, observes that ‘this research and its implications are not new. What is new, though, is the spread of free will scepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream’. Until recently, the debate had generally remained within the confines of academia. However, in the West’s unprecedentedly secular and information-driven era, free will has become a much more mainstream discussion, with books such as Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett, Free Will by Sam Harris and The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow hitting the shelves in recent decades.

So a new debate has emerged: what are the effects of the rising belief that free will does not exist and is it morally permissible to disseminate deterministic ideas? In their paper The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating, psychology researchers Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler found that, when primed with the idea that free will does not exist, subjects are far more likely to cheat on a test. This is, of course, concerning at a time when free will scepticism is making its way into popular thought. Could belief in determinism make people less moral? Vohs and Schooler issue a caveat at the end of their paper:

‘Although the study reported here raises concerns about the possible impact of deterministic views on moral behavior, it is important not to overinterpret our findings. Our experiments measured only modest forms of ethical behavior, and whether or not free-will beliefs have the same effect on more significant moral and ethical infractions is unknown. In addition, a deterministic viewpoint may have a host of possible consequences, and only some of these may be unfavorable’.

This is really the crux of the matter: understanding how free will scepticism could affect our institutions will be crucial in finding out how we can protect them or even whether they need protecting. For the contemporary West, whose societies are based on classical liberal ideas, how can these ideas be reconciled with free will scepticism? And, more importantly, will the ideological foundations of our societies crumble if we cannot reconcile these opposing concepts?

Liberalism without liberty of choice?

Central to liberal thinking is the importance placed on individual liberty. People should be able to live as they choose, without coercion and as freely as is possible within an organised society. Positive liberty (see, for example, Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty) is the type of freedom most discussed in free will philosophy, as it concerns both the availability of choice and the nature of choice itself.

To put the concept of agency and choice into real-world situations, we can examine its effect on liberal institutions such as free markets and representative democracy. The two are based on the freedom of each person to make decisions, whether it is choosing between which toothbrush to purchase at the supermarket or which member of parliament to vote for. The American liberal experiment was envisioned as an opportunity for people to move up in the social order, to freely choose their own paths in life and to be free from oppression and tyranny. According to Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope:

‘These American values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will – a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper’.

If determinism is true, if we have no free will and if every ‘choice’ we make is determined by various internal and external factors, can we really say that we have made a free choice at all? As Yuval Noah Harari puts it: ‘I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have’. In other words, as much as we have the feeling of being free to choose, our choice is determined by factors outside of our control.

So, is it possible to make ‘free’ decisions? Martin Heisenburg, in an article for Nature, makes the case that there is, in fact, evidence of indeterministic, or ‘random’ events occurring in the brain. He gives the examples of ‘the random opening and closing of ion channels in the neuronal membrane, or the miniature potentials of randomly discharging synaptic vesicles. Behaviour that is triggered by random events in the brain can be said to be truly ‘active’ — in other words, it has the quality of a beginning’. Put simply, neuroscientists have detected random events at the quantum level which could be evidence for behaviour that is not subject to determinism. Free will could be said to exist in the random opening of ion channels in the brain, which result in some of the choices humans make. However, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argues that this by no means constitutes proof of the existence of free will. He asks::

‘How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.’

Even if it is true that decisions are made at the quantum level by the random opening of ion channels, this no more means that one has command their own actions or decisions than if they were controlled by rolls of the dice. ‘You can do what you decide to do’, says Harris, ‘– but you cannot decide what you will decide to do’. Ultimately, random choices made by an individual’s subconscious brain could hardly amount to the rational free choice that is assumed in liberalism.

So can free choice be reconciled with free will scepticism? I would argue that it can, in a way. Each person’s ‘choice’ is based upon their existing tastes, desires, experiences, and genes. One would expect people to make choices based on these factors in order to make a decision that best suits them. The brain weighs up the pros and cons in favour of each possible decision. Once one of these outcomes has reached a threshold barrier of pros, it is decided upon. The reasoning that liberalism expects the rational individual to take part in does occur in the brain – although the conscious ‘self’ seems not to play a part in the process. In other words, on a subconscious level, the brain makes decisions based on the interests of the individual, given their genes, previous experiences, desires, and external influences, all of which contribute to decision making. Although this may not be considered ‘free’ in the conventional liberal sense, I don’t think it makes much practical difference when applied to activities associated with positive liberty such as market choice and democratic processes.

Moral accountability

With great power comes great responsibility, they say. Indeed, with freedom of choice comes moral accountability. Isaiah Berlin, in his essay Historical Inevitability, questions the idea that history moves in patterns and that its course is pre-determined and unalterable. Although Berlin does not refute the concept of determinism, he suggests that acceptance of it would call for a re-evaluation of ideas regarding moral responsibility, law, order, and justice. He argues that, if determinism is true, to blame a human for a wrong-doing is as irrational as blaming wild animals, since neither human nor beast has moral responsibility. This is a common criticism of free will scepticism – that systems of law and order such as retributive justice are no longer coherent if blame cannot be placed upon the perpetrator of a crime. In their paper Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal, Sarkissian et al. conducted research on whether public opinion absolved criminals of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. 86% of subjects thought people living in a universe in which determinism is true are not fully morally responsible for their actions. If we see, for example, murderers as lacking responsibility for their crime, since they have no free will and the decision to murder, therefore, was not made consciously by them, how could it be fair to punish or incarcerate them?

Sam Harris thinks that criminals must still be incarcerated, making the utilitarian argument that ‘everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter – assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.’. Neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen also explored the issue of free will and judicial processes in their paper For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything (2004), which gives an optimistic view of determinism. Greene and Cohen hypothesise that changing views on free will could encourage people to see justice as a ‘consequentialist’ rather than a ‘retributive’ process. Understanding that criminals have no conscious control over the ultimate cause of their own actions could lead to justice reforms that take a more humane approach, which, according to Greene and Cohen, are certainly optimistic findings. In essence, a better understanding of free will and the way the mind works can allow policy makers to find solutions that will deter crime, protect the rights of victims, treat criminals in a more compassionate way, and, as Harris argues, maybe even find a neurological cure for conditions such as psychopathy.

Patricia Churchland, a Canadian philosopher, claims that free will scepticism may not necessarily do away with retributive justice entirely, as the biological need to punish others for their transgressions overrides the logical conclusion that people cannot have moral accountability if determinism is true. She says that ‘from an evolutionary perspective, punishment is justified by the value all individuals place on their social life, and by the limits on behaviour needed to maintain that value’.

Although one can fairly coherently reach conclusions that reconcile free will scepticism with classical liberal values and institutions, it does take a certain amount of reading and reasoning to arrive at this point. In addition to this, each topic requires a careful and different response to free will scepticism. My concern is that if too many people doubt the existence of free will, they may do so with an over-simplified understanding of what that means. As the tides of free will scepticism continue to rise, it seems imperative to me that we devise a solution to avoid this over-simplification that may lead to unfortunate consequences.

The good, the bad and the ugly: solutions in Western philosophy

Luckily, in its long history of free will scepticism, Western philosophy has devised a number of blanket solutions to the problem of free will. Many philosophers agree that determinism is true. However, belief in the extent to which determinism affects free will varies hugely amongst free will thinkers. This section looks at three strands of thought on free will scepticism with the aim of finding an ‘all-purpose’ way to approach reconciling free will scepticism with our existing liberal institutions and ideas.

The good: reframing free will scepticism

Some free will sceptics argue that the way we frame determinism is a deciding factor in how it will colour existing views on justice, freedom and tolerance. The term determinism, says philosopher Daniel Dennett, is often wrongly confused with fatalism. However, the potentially negative consequences of free will scepticism can be avoided by reframing the concept. ‘Determinism’, Stephen Cave explains, ‘is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen’. It seems logical that, when determinism is framed in a fatalistic way, people will have pessimistic reactions. For example, in the experiment by Vohs and Schooler that found that subjects were more likely to cheat after reading passages explaining the non-existence of free will, the passages portrayed free will scepticism in a fatalistic way.

Sam Harris (in an interview with Cave), suggests that many of these experiments measure introspective elements of free will scepticism rather than looking at how subjects treat others:

‘Whereas the evidence from Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues suggests that social problems may arise from seeing our own actions as determined by forces beyond our control—weakening our morals, our motivation, and our sense of the meaningfulness of life—Harris thinks that social benefits will result from seeing other people’s behavior in the very same light. From that vantage point, the moral implications of determinism look very different, and quite a lot better.’

The bad: compatibilism

Approaches to free will in general tend to take one of three positions: determinism, libertarianism, or compatibilism. Both determinism and libertarianism are incompatibilist approaches, as they both view free will as incompatible with determinism – they assert that determinism is true and, therefore, free will does not exist (determinist) or that determinism is not true and, therefore, free will does exist (libertarian). The compatibilist position aims to reconcile free will with determinism. If an action comes from you then you can call it a free action, say compatibilists.

Compatibilism, or soft determinism, is the view that if one is able to make a decision without external factors affecting it, then that is considered to be an act of free will, making it a debate over sourcehood. The simplest way of understanding this stance is the following Frankfurt-style thought experiment (named after compatibilist philosopher Harry Frankfurt):

In a non-deterministic universe, a woman is on her way to vote for either political party A or B. What she does not know is that a chip has been implanted in her brain that will make her vote for party A if she chooses to vote for party B. In scenario 1, she gets to the voting booth and chooses party A of her own accord. In scenario 2, she gets to the voting booth having decided to vote for B. Therefore, the chip is activated and she votes for party A. The woman could not have done otherwise but in scenario 1 she chose freely and in scenario 2 she did not. Compatibilists see an action as free if the individual acts unencumbered by external coercion (negative liberty).

A number of free will thinkers see compatibilism as incoherent within the usual confines of the debate. Just because a decision is seemingly solely based on internal factors and deliberation, this is a product of everything that has led up to this moment including our genes, experiences and desires which are out of our control. If we are looking for a simple, blanket way of framing free will scepticism, compatibilism seems too complex and controversial to be a viable option.

The ugly: illusionism

Saul Smilansky is the founder of the illusionism theory of free will, the idea that humans have illusory ideas about free will but that losing faith in these is dangerous to the individual and to society. He argues that ‘humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issues, and this seems to be a condition of civilised morality and personal value’. Smilansky makes the case that humans tend to over-simplify ideas, and that if the view that free will does not exist prevailed, it might be taken as a pure determinism or nihilism, which are wholly incompatible with agency or moral responsibility.

According to the illusionist position, if free will scepticism becomes widespread:

‘a broad loss of moral and personal confidence can be expected. The idea of action-based desert, true internal acceptance of responsibility, respect for effort and achievement, deep ethical appreciation, excusing the innocent – all these and more are threatened by the ‘levelling’ or homogenising view arising from the ultimate perspective’.

In other words, the inevitable simplification of the free will problem could lead to the breakdown of key liberal ideas and institutions. Smilansky offers the suggestion that, since the illusion of free will seems to be part of human nature, ‘scientists and commentators merely need to exercise some self-restraint, instead of gleefully disabusing people of the illusions that undergird all they hold dear’. Illusionists argue that liberal traditions and institutions might be so damaged by determinism that it is better for society as a whole to keep free will scepticism out of public consciousness.

The illusionist position is not particularly popular amongst philosophers, in part because many disagree that free will scepticism is incompatible with the values listed above, and also because denying the public access to ‘truths’ uncovered by philosophers and scientists is often considered to be paternalistic and unethical. After all, the point of science and academia is to shed light on the truth rather than to obscure it for the perceived greater good of society.

Moving forward

A slightly kinder alternative, although somewhat pessimistic one nonetheless, is this: maybe free will scepticism does not need to be hidden from the public because they will not be able to draw the full implications of it by themselves anyway (myself included). Although when thinking rationally about the subject I am fairly sure that I have no free will, I have been unable to internalise this belief. I wonder if it is possible for anyone to internalise it completely, or if the illusion of conscious thought is just too strong to ignore. In the words of Greg Boyd ‘People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, every time they deliberate’. His argument comes from a theological perspective, but putting that aside, I interpret it in this way: determinism is incredibly complex and goes against many of our human instincts and evolutionary mechanisms that cause us to value ideas such as freedom, rights, law and order and organised society. Perhaps public scepticism of free will indeed has no profound effect on how people view liberal concepts because it is simply too counterintuitive and complex to internalise.

Isaiah Berlin said that ‘there are those whose determinism is optimistic and benevolent, and those whose determinism is pessimistic’. To me, determinism constitutes the former. I hope, not only that those classical liberal ideas that form the bedrock of our societies can survive free will scepticism, but that they will be strengthened by a refreshed view of the human brain. For me, understanding our own minds better does not mean inevitably casting aside our existing institutions. Rather, it can help us to be more tolerant, more forgiving and ultimately, to have strong neuroscientific and philosophical bases for our liberal institutions.

I leave you with a quote from Einstein that generally makes me feel a whole lot better about it all…

‘I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.’- Albert Einstein


After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She recently completed a masters in Human Rights, during which she became increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.


Part 1: Introduction

It might be said that a great deal of opposition to critical race theory (CRT), and the ongoing controversy over whether CRT is being taught in schools, is rooted in a perception that CRT is motivated by a racist belief that white people are bad people who refuse to take well- deserved responsibility for racial inequality. One does not have to spend a lot of time on Twitter, for example, to find instances of the belief that CRT is anti-white. There is also a prevalent belief that CRT is being taught in schools as part of an indoctrination campaign to convince white children that they should feel ashamed about their race. CRT proponents fire back by saying that it is ridiculous to claim that CRT is racist or anti-white. They also insist CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools.

CRT proponents correctly point out that CRT originally developed as a niche academic field devoted to the study of how racism is embedded in law and social institutions. An offshoot of Critical Legal Studies, CRT embraces legal realism, which is the idea that law is intimately connected to social interests and social policy, and rejects legal formalism, which is the idea that the law should be independent of social interests and social policy. CRT was born in part as an attempt to examine how law is not a neutral and perfectly rational arbiter of disputes about racial injustice.

In addition, CRT proponents are correct that CRT is not racist or anti-white in the sense that it is some fantastical offshoot, for example, of a chapter in Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. This chapter told the story of how an exiled black scientist named Yakub, exiled by a peaceful all-black world, got revenge by setting up an island regime and selectively breeding a white race which invaded the black mainland, set up white rule, and brutally oppressed the black race.

Nonetheless, CRT critics have a point. CRT is not an outright war on white people, but it does lend itself to a defeatism which cannot help but look resentfully upon America’s “white” society. For example, in a 1995 Denver Law Review paper, law professor Leroy D. Clark laments the futility of CRT founder Derrick Bell’s view that racism is a permanent feature of American society. “Professor Bell”, he writes, “tries heroically, but I believe futilely, to avoid the despair which he knows naturally flows from his thesis” by claiming “one attains a certain freedom simply from knowing the truth and deciding to struggle on anyway.” Moreover, “[t]elling whites that they are irremediably racist is not mere ‘information’; it is a force that helps create the future it predicts. If whites believe the message, feelings of futility could overwhelm any further efforts to seek change.”

On the latter point, CRT lends itself to an insidious subtext which holds white people in decidedly low esteem with respect to their commitment to racial justice. It is not “holding white people to account” that is problematic. It is instead CRT’s fatalistic subtext that holds racism to be not simply a matter of individual prejudice writ large on society, but an inherently systemic feature of society’s institutions. These institutions are capable of marginal improvement to the extent they are politically confronted on an ongoing basis – that is, if they are incessantly problematized. Yet there is no possible attainment of “justice” as a lasting equilibrium because racism perpetually recycles itself via the ideological and discursive practices of white supremacy.

It is too much for this already-lengthy essay to delve into the history of ideas that informs this fatalistic foundation of critical race theory. But we can obtain more than a glimpse by shedding light on a central tenet of CRT – what CRT founder Derrick Bell calls the “interest convergence dilemma.”


What Is the Interest Convergence Thesis?

According to this dilemma, racial progress in America depends crucially on the alignment of “white” and “black” interests. Whenever there is an issue in which blacks have a stake, blacks can expect their interests to be advanced if and only if there is something to be gained for whites. Moreover, this will always be the case because America is built on white supremacy.

In a 1980 Comment, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” Professor Bell wrote:

Translated from judicial activity in racial cases both before and after Brown, this principle of “interest convergence” provides: The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites. However, the fourteenth amendment, standing alone, will not authorize a judicial remedy providing effective racial equality for blacks where the remedy sought threatens the superior societal status of middle and upper class whites.

It was not the first time Bell put forth the thesis of interest convergence as a necessary and sufficient condition for black advancement (though it may be argued that Bell is saying that interest convergence is only a necessary condition, it is my interpretation that interest convergence is also taken to be sufficient). In a 1976 paper for the Notre Dame Law Review entitled “Racial Remediation: An Historical Perspective on Current Conditions,” Bell argued that “even a rather cursory look at American legal history suggests that in the past, the most significant political advances for blacks resulted from policies which were intended and had the effect of serving the interests and convenience of whites rather than remedying racial injustices against blacks.”

For example, Bell contends that, in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the abolition of slavery in the northern states of America was motivated primarily by “the economic advantages emancipation promised white businessmen who could not efficiently use slaves, and laborers who did not wish to compete with slaves for jobs.” Abolition also reduced the risk of slave revolts and minimized a potential influx of black people into northern states. On the latter point, “[t]he exclusion of emancipated blacks from the political process in all the Northern states and their consignment to menial jobs and an inferior social status reflect the distinction most whites drew between abolition of slavery and acceptance of the former slaves.” It was economic and social interest, not the immorality of slavery, that primarily drove abolitionism in northern states.

Bell also observes that, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s “primary objective was to save the Union.” Bell correctly points out that Lincoln wrote to newspaper magnate Horace Greeley that preserving the Union was his utmost priority and “he would end slavery, see it maintained, or end part and keep part” if any of those options facilitated efforts to win the war and preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation reflected this assessment by “cover[ing] only those areas still under the control of the Confederacy.” Interestingly, Bell observes that the proclamation “caused bitter anti-Negro riots in the North, and led to serious political reverses for Lincoln and the Republicans.” Lincoln apparently persisted with the proclamation despite white resistance. Bell, however, reminds us that the proclamation helped gain support from European nations and “opened the way for the Union Army to enlist nearly 200,000 black soldiers.”

Already we can begin to see how the fatalistic cynicism of interest convergence theory replaces multidimensionality with a simplified mono-causality. Even as he acknowledges Lincoln’s moral convictions about the evil of slavery, Bell lends undue credence to a view that Lincoln was more inclined to accommodate the political interests of whites than to go full force against the immorality of slavery. As President of the United States, Lincoln was constitutionally obligated to prioritize preservation of the Union. A puritanical and uncompromising focus on the eradication of slavery at all costs would have undermined this constitutional prerogative. In so doing, it also would have destroyed hopes of emancipation by allowing dissolution of a Union within which the conditions of emancipation could be pursued in an orderly and effective manner.

Yet another example of interest convergence involves civil rights legislation enacted during post-Civil War Reconstruction. Bell acknowledges that “[h]istorians have cited humanitarian concerns, political realities and a desire to punish the South as factors explaining the enactment of the civil rights amendments,” but he keeps his monocausal lens squarely on Dr. Mary Frances Berry’s suggestion “that necessity and self-interest in utilizing large numbers of black troops during the conflict largely determined the measures toward securing emancipation and granting citizenship and suffrage during the postwar years.”

In other words, it was all about white self-interest yet again. It did not, however, seem to work. Despite the claim that the thirteenth amendment was passed in large part as a result of the Republican “desire to maintain Republican party control in the Southern states and in Congress,” the amendment became obsolete within a decade, especially as it became odiously apparent that “Southern planters could achieve the same benefits with less burden through the sharecropping system and simple violence.” Professor Bell does not consider the possibility that President Lincoln, a tremendously effective political leader and operative as well as a superb political strategist, could have followed through on his moral convictions about slavery had he not been assassinated.

Even so, Bell acknowledges that “a century after the events, historians have not fully sorted out the multiple motivations for the civil rights activities during the Reconstruction Era.” It would seem presumptuous, then, “to attempt almost contemporaneous conclusions about the Brown years.” Nevertheless, Bell presumes to believe that his thesis of interest convergence applies to school desegregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Bell mentions that the Brown decision can be attributed to factors such as black northern migration, the efforts of civil rights attorneys, the lessons of Nazi Germany, attentiveness to the concerns of black servicemen from World War II, and “a humane as well as politically aware Supreme Court.” But for Bell, the Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education to overturn “separate but equal” would not have been possible had not “the Brown decision also strengthened America’s position during the cold war.”

The promotion of democracy and capitalism over statist communism was “aided greatly by the abandonment of apartheid policies at home,” and these “foreign policy advantages” found their way into the federal government’s amicus curiae briefs. Although the “Supreme Court’s opinion in Brown did not acknowledge its impact on either foreign relations or domestic politics,” Bell is keen to emphasize that the “news media of the day did not miss the implications.” Nothing can divert Bell from the profound cynicism of interest convergence theory.

Indeed, the promise of desegregation was apparently sufficient to ward off international condemnation of racial injustice in the United States. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled “that the entitlement of blacks to desegregated public schooling need not be immediately granted, but might be delayed until administrative problems were solved.” Meanwhile, “while civil rights groups and some federal courts continue well-intended efforts to effectuate the Brown decision, there is little evidence that black children are educationally advantaged in desegregated schools, and growing concern that ‘white flight’ will resegregate many systems in the next few years.”

In sum, the nation “acknowledged and enjoined” racial injustice when it was “[s]purred by the need to confront a political or economic danger to the nation as a whole…but necessary remedies [were] not implemented once the economic or political irritant is removed.” He then runs through additional examples of backtracking, such as ineffective jury reform, gerrymandering, and Supreme Court decisions that drew “subtle distinctions in wealth and race” that retarded progress “in cases involving welfare, public housing, and educational finance even though the injustices sought to be remedied in each instance fall heavily on blacks and other nonwhites.”

Moreover, “[p]rocedural barriers now frustrate litigation designed to open up the suburbs to low-income housing.” Redistricting maintained white majority rule in increasingly black urban areas of Richmond, Virginia which “could now be justified on nondiscriminatory grounds.” Criminal conspiracy cases were brought against civil rights leaders and their organizations engaging in “direct action campaigns for better jobs through peaceful picketing and boycotts.” Although “[g]ains continue[d] to be made in the fight against employment discrimination…long-term progress was jeopardized seriously by the Supreme Court’s refusal to recognize the serious dimensions of the conflict between the interests of black and white union members.”

The upshot, then, is that “while legal rights have strategic and tactical usefulness, black people cannot afford the luxury of viewing rights as more than they are.” As Bell explains, “[t]he major liberating events in black history have, in fact, been motivated less by black suffering than by the pragmatic advantage they offered white society.” Moreover, “[v]iewed in retrospect, landmark civil rights precedents often result in far more benefit to the society as a whole than they bring to blacks.” The resolution of conflicts between whites and blacks in American history have come as the result of “compromises that victimized blacks,” and “[t]o the extent that resolutions of differences occur between poor and wealthy whites, the poor whites often achieve a larger voice in the political process through specific laws and policies that reduce the status of blacks.”


Part 2: The Problems with Interest Convergence Theory

The most conspicuous aspect of interest convergence theory is its fatalistic cynicism. This cynicism is rooted in a narrow conception of “white” self-interest as singular and sinister despite whatever diversity of interests one might occasionally, or frequently, observe among white people in American society. The major ramification is that anti-black racism is a permanent feature of American society. In the context of race relations, Bell seemingly cannot conceive of a majoritarian ruling, opinion, or policy that is sustained by a commitment to the interests of black Americans without a recognizable tangible benefit uniformly enjoyed by white people.

This narrow conception of self-interest gives rise to a theory that effectively overlooks the diversity of interests within racial groups, ignores how much racial progress has been achieved, and denies agency to whites and blacks alike. The result is a profoundly pessimistic rendering of race relations in American society that sees racism as a permanent feature of American society. The theory is also conveniently framed as unfalsifiable and indefinitely extendible, purporting to explain “why certain limitations on the use of targeted killings have been put into place” in the case of targeted killings by drones and why former U.S. President Barack Obama was elected as someone who would ensure that society was safe for corporate capitalism.

The implication is not that interest-convergence theory should be entirely dismissed. Rather, it needs a critique that sheds light on its limitations in order to unshackle the analytical constraints it inevitably imposes on any robust attempt to understand how we can move forward on race relations. As Professor Justin Driver concludes in a 2011 paper in the Northwestern University Law Review, “[a]ppealing to interest-convergence sentiments is surely a valuable tool, but it should not be regarded as the only tool that is available. Because notions of interest can be so complex and varied, it seems misguided to appeal only to an extremely narrow conception of self-interest.”

Professor Driver’s paper “initiates a critical discussion of the interest-convergence thesis” and provides a comprehensive, fair-minded, and balanced critique of Professor Bell’s theory. As he notes, it is needed. After a brief summary of “the theory’s prominence within the legal academy and beyond” since its conception in the 1970s, Driver writes that “it is surprising that virtually no sustained scholarly attention has been dedicated to examining the interest-convergence thesis, the assumptions that undergird the thesis, and the consequences that flow from accepting the thesis.”

According to Driver, interest convergence theory’s “overly broad conceptualizations” about the meaning of “black interests” and “white interests” obscure “intensely contested disputes” about what these interests entail. Second, the theory “incorrectly suggests that the racial status of blacks and whites over the course of United States history is notable more for continuity than for change.” Third, the theory “accords insufficient agency to two groups of actors—black citizens and white judges—who have played, and continue to play, significant roles in shaping racial realities.” Finally, the theory “cannot be refuted⎯and, thus, cannot be examined for its validity⎯because it accommodates racially egalitarian judicial decisions either by contending that they are necessary concessions in order to maintain white racism or by ignoring them altogether.”

  1. Narrow Conception of Self-Interest

On the first point, it’s not obvious that all whites and all blacks agree as a group about what policies advance their respective interests. Ashley Jardina’s White Identity Politics and Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, though exploring how white interests operate socially and politically in today’s world, also provide extensive documentation of intra-white viewpoint diversity. Professor Driver additionally points out “serious disagreements about what precisely advances the interests of black citizens.”

For example, disagreements emerge about whether “meaningful racial integration” is “a realistic goal”, with Professor Bell expressing doubts about “the wisdom of a headlong pursuit of racial integration.” On criminal justice reform, “many commentators suggest that black interests would be served by abandoning the aggressive policing of black communities that has been partially responsible for a highly disproportionate number of black people being ensnared by the legal system.” Randall Kennedy “has argued, however, that such analyses elevate the interests of black criminals over the interests of black victims.”

Then there is the issue of “white interests.” It is not clear, for example, that middle- and upper-class whites share the same interests even if their interests diverge from the interests of poorer whites. Interests can vary even among whites classified within the upper crust of the income distribution.

  1. The Minimization of Racial Progress

One the second point, Driver explains that “[w]hile the goal of racial equality has certainly not yet been fully realized, the racial progress that has been made over the generations has dramatically elevated the racial status of blacks.” Indeed, Driver correctly and poignantly observes the incontrovertible reality that “the racial existence of blacks in modern America would be unrecognizable, and perhaps even unfathomable, to their enslaved forefathers.” To contend, as Bell does, “that the existence of blacks today can be analogized to people who were literally (not metaphorically) denied their freedom or to people who had their liberty thoroughly circumscribed by Jim Crow minimizes the suffering of individuals who endured the yoke of unrelenting racial oppression.”

Consider, for example, that “[i]n Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court made the then unremarkable point that a black man ‘is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.’” As Driver notes matter-of-factly, “[n]ot only would such arguments no longer appear in the U.S. Reports but they would no longer be uttered in polite company.” In sum, one can concede that “[c]onditions are far from perfect on America’s racial front,” but [a]cknowledging racism’s continued effects does not mean…it is impossible to acknowledge simultaneously that the racial progress blacks have achieved since World War II has been anything less than profound.”

  1. The Denial of Agency

Interest convergence theory, Driver continues, “accords an almost complete absence of agency to two groups of actors who exercise a great deal of control regarding the advancement of black interests: the black citizenry and the white judiciary.” But stripping blacks of their agency implicitly encourages “black citizens to await the magical moment when their interests converge with the white majority…sharply discount[ing] the capacity of black people to participate in their own uplift.”

Similarly, “by reducing white judges to mere functionaries who do the bidding of the white establishment,” Bell’s theory “simultaneously diminishes the culpability of white judges who exercise their authority to maintain the existing racial hierarchy and denies the credit owed to white members of the judiciary who challenge that hierarchy.” As a result, Bell’s theory “risks reducing black people to the role of bystanders to the events of American history, individuals who occasionally get swept up in the current of world affairs but have a negligible role in shaping those affairs.” The theory “does not wholly remove all traces of black agency,” but “the amount of influence accorded black people over their own fates is a decidedly marginal phenomenon.” The Civil Rights Movement, and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., indicate otherwise.

The denial of agency not only discourages further agency. It also shortchanges the contributions of both blacks and whites to racial progress. For example, if “a black person should achieve distinction in the professional world, interest convergence suggests that the white establishment permitted that black person’s achievement as a small concession necessary to advance white interests and maintain racial order.” As a result, the theory’s “minimization of black agency also may have the regrettable effect of undermining the achievement of individual blacks.”

The same goes for whites. This unfortunate consequence especially applies to white judges. “The denial of agency,” writes Driver, “to one particular group of white citizens⎯white judges⎯merits scrutiny here in light of their perceived centrality to implementing the interest-convergence thesis.” On the one hand, “[t]his minimization at once denies culpability to members of the judiciary who have ratified racism through their decisions and denies credit to members of the judiciary who have rejected racism.” On the other hand, “[i]n the middle third of the twentieth century, an all-white Supreme Court issued a number of decisions that confronted the racist treatment of blacks in a variety of contexts, including the electoral, residential, and, yes, the educational.”

What we are left with is a “conspiratorial outlook” that casts Supreme Court Justices who “resemble less a collection of individuals with varying ideological commitments than an undifferentiated mass composed of diabolical seers who are dedicated to prolonging black subordination by protecting white interests.” But failing to recognize the successes of court judges in the march of racial progress “is unwise because judges will be unlikely to issue progressive decisions on race⎯or other legal areas involving inequality⎯if they believe that their decisions will ultimately be understood as only protecting the prevailing order. The interest-convergence theory’s minimization of agency thus provides a myopic view of judicial behavior in all its moral dimensions.”

  1. The Interest Convergence Theory Is Unfalsifiable

Professor Driver begins his paper by recounting the landmark Grutter vs. Bollinger case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using race as a factor in university admissions does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The case gave a boost to activists who had long advocated for affirmative action as a means of advancing the interests of black Americans. Professor Bell, however, was not so sanguine. One clue as to why, Driver writes, can be detected in a statement by one-time NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, who not only “viewed Grutter as an affirmation of the organization’s efforts to achieve black advancement,” but also expressed particular admiration for Grutter’s conception of affirmative action not as a policy that benefits primarily blacks but instead as a policy that benefits all of American society—including the armed services and the business communities.”

Among other criticisms, “legal scholars on the left also criticized Grutter for precisely the feature that Professor Greenberg lauded: its justification of affirmative action as a compelling government interest on the ground that such programs enhance leading American institutions rather than on the ground that such programs benefit racial minorities.” Professor Bell “viewed Grutter as a ‘definitive example’ of his ‘interest-convergence’ thesis,” which, as we have seen, claims that “blacks receive favorable judicial decisions to the extent that their interests coincide with the interests of whites.”

As with Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the Court “was not motivated by a desire to redress black suffering under racial segregation,” but instead with improving the nation’s “image during the Cold War,” Bell “detected similar motivations animating the Court’s decision in Grutter.” Justice O’Connor only supported the Grutter decision when she “perceived in the Michigan Law School’s admissions program an affirmative action plan that minimizes the importance of race while offering maximum protection to whites and those aspects of society with which she identifies.”

In his own words, Professor Bell took “some measure of a prophet’s pride” for having long argued “that no matter how much harm blacks were suffering because of racial hostility and discrimination, we could not obtain meaningful relief until policymakers perceived that the relief blacks sought furthered interests or resolved issues of more primary concern.” Brown vs. Board of Education “did not immediately lead to desegregated schools in much of the country.” Similarly, Driver writes, Bell “predicted that Grutter would prove to be a fleeting victory for racial minorities.”

In short, Driver concludes, the pessimistic reaction of Bell and other critics “was a vivid illustration” of the irrefutability of interest-convergence theory. “Instead of calling out ‘heads, I win; tails, you lose’,” Driver explains, “the interest-convergence thesis simply substitutes ‘heads, white people win; tails, black people lose’.” Its framing makes interest convergence theory unfalsifiable. “Like many self-styled prophets,” Driver points out, “Professor Bell can tout his foresight not least because he espouses a view of the world that is fundamentally incapable of being falsified by subsequent events.” Indeed, “[a]ll judicial decisions involving race can, if subjected to sufficiently intense scrutiny, be understood to affirm the existence of the interest-convergence theory at work.” The theory’s irrefutability, Driver continues, “is intensified by Professor Bell’s tendency to minimize and ignore data points that appear to refute or even complicate the thesis.”

This irrefutability feeds the fatalism that “explains why some cases that might initially be viewed as racial advances reveal themselves to be, upon closer inspection, merely legitimations of the prevailing racial hierarchy.” In other words, “[i]f legal rules expose the underpinnings of racism in an excessively blatant manner, the interest-convergence theory provides that the judiciary may grant some relief to black people because doing so serves larger white societal interests: namely, an interest in the appearance of meritocracy and an interest in the social stability necessary to avoid racial unrest.”

These “ostensible victories” are what Bell calls “contradiction closing cases”. That is, they ostensibly close the gap between the nation’s ideals and the realization of its ideals, but crucially, in the words of Bell, only as a “shield against excesses in the exercise of white power,” while “bring[ing] no real change in the status of blacks.” These cases merely “provide[] blacks and liberals with the sense that the system is not so bad after all.” In the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, Bell argues: “You would never know it from the opposition and determined resistance of so many whites…but the Brown decision was actually a good deal for white Americans.”

Why? Because “[t]he Brown decision’s rejection of the racial barriers imposed by segregation . . . reinforced the fiction that the path of progress was clear. Everyone could and should succeed through individual ability and effort.” As Driver notes, “Professor Bell now views Brown as a decision that advanced racism by appearing to reject racism.” Interest-convergence theory can have its cake and eat it too.

This persistent fatalism is not restricted to Professor Bell. As Driver notes, fellow CRT scholar and professor “Richard Delgado has further explained that contradiction-closing cases occur ‘when the gap between our ideals and a pervasively racist reality grows too large,” serving to “legitimate a generally indifferent legal system, permitting dominant society to believe that it is fair and just.”

Perhaps such fatalism is understandable, but it is no shield against the methodological problem of un-falsifiability. In the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, as Driver notes, “[t]hat a decision rejecting racial hierarchy in fact must be understood as reinforcing racial hierarchy lays bare the essential irrefutability of the interest-convergence thesis. Judicial decisions that seem to undermine the thesis are seamlessly transformed into confirmations of the thesis.” Have your cake and eat it too.

This fatalism is especially pernicious because it encourages resignation about the impossibility of overcoming racism. By “viewing judicial decisions as mere ‘correction[s] of racial outrages’,” the theory “denies the existence, and even the possibility, of obtaining genuine victories on the road to racial equality.” In fact, the notion that judicial decisions merely engage in the “correction of racial outrages”, Driver notes, “obscures racial progress, as one generation’s everyday slight is the next generation’s outrage.” The cynical view that judicial decisions only temporarily close the gap between ideals and the realization of ideals “dismisses judicial defeats on the racial front as expected outcomes and rejects victories for racial equality as necessary concessions in order to maintain the racial status quo. According to this mindset, then, the judicial system sometimes seems incapable of issuing a decision that merits praise for advancing black interests.”

Finally, Driver notes, since the “interest-convergence thesis is predicated on racial stasis and the Court’s impervious approach to black interests,” it prevents Bell from adequately “grappling with” racially egalitarian decisions issued by the courts. “[I]f these cases do in fact cut against the interest-convergence theory,” Driver maintains, “Professor Bell should acknowledge that point frankly.” To ignore or minimize “the significance of seemingly important doctrinal shifts regarding race enhances the concern that the interest-convergence theory is less than fully committed to a candid assessment of developments in the legal world.” The point, of course, is not to disregard the interest convergence thesis altogether, but to recognize its limitations, allow for a more optimistic view of race relations, and encourage court decisions that advance black interests.



One major takeaway from interest convergence theory is that whites not only value their own interests over the interests of blacks, but they have little regard for the value of blacks overall. As Bell states in Racial Remediation, although “most whites view the racial plight of blacks as an injustice that should be corrected,” whites also rank “the elimination of racism…[as] only a step or two higher than the campaign to end the senseless slaughter of the oceans’ great whales.” If so, white Americans cannot be expected to offer up much in the way of sacrifice on behalf of racial justice.

This, Bell believes, is because America is, at heart, a racist country: “America is not simply a country consisting of white majority; it is a white country which means that flourishing black institutions of any kind are unnatural, suspect and not to be encouraged.” Any black individual who succeeds does so only at the expense of reinforcing the racial hierarchy: “This is not to say that blacks as individuals cannot achieve and prosper in this country, and receive general acclaim for those achievements. Successful blacks serve white interests by providing the rationalizing link between the nation’s espousal of racial equality and its practice of racial dominance.”

Interest convergence theory feeds a conspiratorial mindset summed up by Professor Driver: “The inability to refute the suggestion that the interest-convergence theory is at work results in the reinforcement of racially conspiratorial thought, a mindset that is disturbingly prominent within the black community.” Driver cites studies showing that 60.2 percent of black college students “thought that it was definitely true or possibly true that the AIDS virus was intentionally designed in a laboratory to infect blacks,” and that “84.1% of the black college students deemed it definitely true or possibly true that the United States government intentionally ensures that illicit drugs are available in impoverished black communities.” The historical oppression of black Americans “is, of course, far from a figment of the black imagination,” but Driver adds, “in the modern era, no evidence confirms that large-scale racial conspiracies exist within the United States.”

This paranoia comes at a cost. Professor invokes the words of Professor Edward Banfield: “It is bad enough to suffer real prejudice . . . without having to suffer imaginary prejudice as well.” Moreover, Driver notes, “[t]he relentless search to identify widespread racial conspiracies…prevents at least some black people from seeking interracial understanding and relationships, as white people are warily viewed as potential conspirators in racial oppression.” Finally, it gives rise to a paranoid mindset that prevents “advocates for racial equality from gaining sorely needed attention to address policies and laws that have a disproportionately negative impact on black lives.”

This, Driver concludes, is ironic considering that Bell traditionally has argued that it is whites who are paranoid for opposing racial reforms such as affirmative action that supposedly end up benefitting themselves. Only paranoia, Bell claims, can explain such opposition. Apparently, however, paranoia cannot explain the underlying fatalism that permeates interest convergence theory.

The conspiracy-mongering makes sense, however, when we consider the epigraph in Bell’s book Silent Covenants, which, according to Driver, argues:

The world is moved by diverse powers and pressures creating cross currents that unpredictably, yet with eerie precision, determine the outcome of events. Often invisible in their influence, these forces shape our destinies, furthering or frustrating our ambitions and goals. The perfection for which we strive is elusive precisely because we are caught up in the myriad of manifestations of perfection itself.

Professor Bell is not alone. The notion of racial subordination as operating at the subliminal level of “false consciousness” in American society is at the heart of both CRT and critical whiteness studies. Richard Delgado, for example, has said that “American society oppresses and subordinates minorities of color at every turn, subscribing to a nearly invisible ideology that finds [racial] oppression tolerable, natural, and inevitable.” Naturally, this framing of racism becomes irrefutable in practice.

As Driver notes, “Professor Bell has written that the outlook ‘is simply a hard-eyed view of racism as it is and [blacks’] subordinate role in [society]’.” Moreover, “[i]ndividuals who disagree with the interest-convergence theory’s conclusions are dismissed as being uninformed and naïve,” with Professor Bell saying that people who view Brown as a valuable precedent are akin to “those who hold that the earth is, after all, flat.” As proclaimed by a fictional character created by Richard Delgado: “interest-convergence explains resistance to the very idea of interest-convergence.” This is not a mindset, Driver concludes, that lends “itself to probing scholarly exchange.”

Jonathan Church is an economist and writer who has been published in Areo, Quillette, Merion West, Culturico, Washington Examiner, and other venues. His book Reinventing Racism: Why ‘White Fragility’ Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality was published in December 2020 by Rowman & Littlefield. His next book, Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in May 2022.


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.

  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.


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.

The question of whether or not there are biologically based psychological and cognitive differences between the sexes is a touchy subject in much feminist literature and increasingly—as these ideas have by now far outgrown the confines of academia—society at large. Judith Butler has gone so far as to say that sex itself is a social construct that has “no ontological status” beyond our social realities; that is, the significance of sex is socially constructed in the way we classify it. Others argue for the weaker claim that only gender is a social construct. Typically speaking, sex is thought of as one’s biology—as determined by the chromosomes one possesses and the ways in which one’s body is made up to aid sexual reproduction—and gender as the social expression or psychological traits that are typically associated with a particular sex.

Suspicion of psychological and intellectual differences between the sexes is understandable when placed in its historical context. It was not so long ago (and is still the case in many parts of the world today—as well as in many pockets of societies that have come far in gender equality) that females were thought of as inherently subservient, irrational, intellectually subpar and generally inferior to men. A lot of these ideas and stereotypes were dubiously justified by purported biological realities and used to keep women out of fields and jobs they were deemed incapable of succeeding in. It is not surprising, then, that to some the women’s liberatory project seems to necessitate demonstrating the falsity of these ideas and stereotypes by denying biologically based gender differences between the sexes and showing these differences, or ideas of differences, to be the product of socialisation. This does not have to include a Butler-esque radical suspicion of the biological categories of male and female; it merely requires a denial that such biological differences play a significant role in gender differences.

While this route is an understandable one, it can go too far. That is, if women’s liberation is deemed to only be achievable by eradicating stereotypes, one may be tempted to conclude that this involves demonstrating that women are identical to men in all ways—and that anyone who says otherwise is morally suspect or bigoted. However, from the correct claim that some ideas regarding gender differences and actual gender differences have been the product of misinformation and socialisation it does not follow that all ideas regarding gender differences and actual gender differences are the result of misinformation and socialisation. Indeed, given the years of evolutionary history that have produced the sexually dimorphic species that we are today, it would be quite startling if there were no differences in personality traits, interests, intellectual capabilities etc. between the sexes. Our cognitive and psychological traits, after all, are not under the remit of some immaterial Cartesian substance, but our physical brains.

The notion that anyone who doubts parity across all cognitive and psychological domains of the sexes is merely serving to reinforce, or reintroduce, ungrounded stereotypes we would be better off without, is misguided. Acknowledging differences between the sexes does not constitute or necessitate the disempowerment of one sex in favour of the other; in fact, I think a reasonable case can be made that—in our current times—the denial of genuine differences can send unnecessarily disempowering messages to women.

But figuring out exactly what these differences are, the degree to which they affect real world differential outcomes and the causes of these differences is much easier said than done.

Take IQ for example. With the proliferation of podcasters in recent years, I have found myself accessing ideas and thinkers through a medium I am unused to in the form of videos or recordings. As an avid book reader with a lot of love for the written word and less, so I thought, for the spoken one, my steps into this world were tentative. However, I found myself becoming enamoured with certain thinkers and speakers for their eloquence and wit in the face of situations and intellectual challenges which would have most stammering and red-faced. Watching people who surely fit the bill of “brilliance”—I am thinking here of the likes of the late Christopher Hitchens and, for people closer to my own age, Coleman Hughes and Alex O’Connor—can be something of an awe-inspiring experience and it filled me with a keen, but clearly unrealisable, desire to emulate.

For me, sometimes compounding this sense that emulation was unlikely was the realisation that not all, but almost all, of those I most admired and who filled me with that sense of awe tended to be men. There are of course many brilliant and awe-inspiring women, some of whom are in our Counterweight staff; however, the overwhelming majority of those who seemed to fit the bill of intellectual brilliance had or have an appendage that I lack. This became increasingly apparent to me once I had started accessing more and more ideas through YouTube. In reading, one is less inclined to notice the sex of the author – and therefore less inclined to ponder over their lack of appendage and whether such a state of affairs constitutes a hindrance in intellectual progression.

I started to worry if this might be caused by my own sexism. In conversations with a friend, we had both acknowledged that the really smart people we have met or looked up to tend to be men. Perhaps, though, it just seemed this way to us? Maybe we simply perceive men as smarter. Or maybe brilliant women just get less attention in general. Perhaps we are less likely to buy the books of brilliant women, listen to the podcasts of brilliant women, or invite brilliant women to debates. Perhaps we, as a society, really do have deeply ingrained biases that affected both my perception of the relative intelligence of the most intelligent men and women and the ability of brilliant women to progress.

These thoughts are quite depressing. I have always thought that men and women were of equal intelligence; both my parents have doctorates in STEM and I have precious little experience of people treating me as inferior, or assuming a lesser intelligence, due to my sex. However, the creeping suspicion started that I would never be like my heroes. This, of course, is probably true for almost everyone regardless of their sex. However, it stings a bit more when it seems like this is not the result of sheer statistical unlikelihood but the hobbling inflicted on my sex by a potentially unfair and biased society. A prejudice, in fact, that works so effectively I seemed to be sexist myself despite holding no conscious ideas of IQ differences between the sexes.

At first light, articles and research seem to support this depressing narrative; that is, that women, despite being equally capable, are not considered to be as brilliant as men. For example, in an article titled ‘We Are Biased to Think Men Are Smarter, and That Hurts Women, the author writes (referring to a study on gender bias):

“The odds of referring a woman were 38.3 percent lower when the job description mentioned brilliance,” the researchers report. This same bias was found whether the person making the recommendation was male or female. …

By many metrics, women are equal, if not superior, to men in the intellectual arena. “Girls make up over half of the children in gifted and talented programs,” the researchers note. “Women graduate from college at higher rates, as well as from master’s and doctoral programs.”

Yet the underlying prejudice persists. (It helps explain why children still think of scientists as male.) That means some of our smartest citizens are not getting the opportunities they deserve, which ultimately hurts everyone.

Bian and her colleagues point to two possible ways to fight this bias: “By changing the brilliance=men stereotype, or by making this stereotype irrelevant to decisions about employment.”

From another article, discussing a study on gender stereotypes:

“Overall, STEM fields are more likely to endorse the belief that you have to be brilliant to succeed,” he [Andrei Cimpian, the study co-author] says. “But there’s variation among the STEM fields, and that variation tracks with their diversity.” A 2015 study co-authored by Cimpian found that while women were earning around half of all PhDs in fields such as molecular biology and neuroscience, less than 20% of women were earning PhDs in physics and computer science, two disciplines commonly associated with “brilliance.” By contrast, around 70% of all PhDs in the humanities such as art history and psychology were earned by women at the time.


These articles and studies all seem to point towards the same conclusion: women are unfairly considered to be less brilliant than men. So, on the brink of denouncing all of western society and lamenting the unfairness imposed on me by drawing the short end of the stick of our species’ sexual dimorphism—why could I not be a clownfish?!—I came across some interesting information. There is a question in need of answering which is suspiciously lacking from consideration in these articles: are there differences between men and women when it comes to the very top end of the IQ distribution? The answer seems to be yes. While research tends to show that average IQ differences between men and women are non-existent or small—indeed, IQ tests are usually constructed so that there are no questions that advantage men over women and vice versa—there seem to be large differences between the sexes when it comes to IQ distributions. Namely, there are far more men on the extreme top end of the IQ distribution as well as the extreme low end of the IQ distribution. This means that, yes, there are more brilliant men—if we define brilliance in terms of exceptionally high IQs. However, it seems that there are more significant differences at the low end of the IQ distributions than at the high end. There is a decent amount of evidence in favour of this. See here, here, here, here and here for studies that seem to confirm the male variability hypothesis—the hypothesis that males show more variability than females in certain traits. Two of these studies are very large cross-cultural meta-analyses. Another includes two Scottish population samples of 11-year-olds, one containing around 71,000 children and the other 81,000 children. Another is a 30-year study with 1,173,350 test scores ranging over 20 years for SAT-mathematical ability and 440,369 test scores ranging over 30 years for ACT-mathematics and ACT-science.

So, is it settled? Is the male variability hypothesis confirmed and can we finally put to rest the question of biological or genetic cognitive differences between men and women? Alas, probably not. It is clear that males are more variable than females in some countries. However, disentangling nature from nurture is an often-impossible task, and it is not yet clear the degree to which these IQ differences are the product of genetic variability that is perhaps greater in men due to how they evolved for sexual competition or environmental and social factors. Indeed, it often makes little sense to pose the question as an either-or in the first place. The nature versus nurture debate is almost always a false dichotomy—the development of organisms is not so neat or easily divided into broad categories of biology versus environment. Further, the biological is indeed malleable. And, for all the countries that show homogenous findings of greater male variability, there are still some, albeit fewer, countries that some studies have found to be neutral in regards to male and female variability in IQ, and even countries that show greater female variability. Further, male variability seems to shrink to an extent as societies progress with gender equality, suggesting that IQ differences are not the sole product of genetics.

There is some conflicting information regarding the degree to which male variability tracks gender equality. One meta-analysis finds that mathematical variability correlates with gender equity measures, another meta-analysis finds that higher male variability is almost universal in countries with comparable assessments and another study finds that the shrinking of the male to female advantage in the very top end of mathematical ability (top 5%) has pretty much stopped within the last two decades. That is, it shrunk rapidly when many barriers in the way of women were taken away, and then plateaued.

Why do I always admire smart men, then? Is it because there are more men with exceptionally high IQs, and is this only a reality due to a prejudiced society, or is it the result of genetics, or, more likely, some combination of the two? Or perhaps it has less to do with IQ and more to do with average lower neuroticism in men and average increased aggression in men, helping them make it to the top of their professions in extremely competitive markets. Or perhaps it really is the result of prejudice and discrimination. In all honesty, I am unsure, and I am not convinced we have the data that will conclusively settle these issues. What I do think, however, is that finding out is important. And that these issues are unnecessarily polarised given the importance of the answers on the functioning of our society and given the fact that working out the data and sifting through the studies is genuinely hard. It will not do, for example, to fire or pressure to resign, those with whom we disagree on this topic.

Imagine, for example, that it is the case that men are genetically more variable than women, leading to far more men on the top end of the IQ scale. If we ignore this, demonise those who research it or simply suggest it as a possibility, what happens? What is the cost of viewing all disparities between the sexes as a result of bias and prejudice if they are not? Without heavy social manipulation, we will never see perfectly equitable outcomes. This means that fields in which men tend to excel will always be viewed as sexist even in a hypothetically perfect utopia of meritocracy. What does it say to a young female mathematician who is, herself, brilliant, that she will likely be received badly in the academic world, that she will be falsely perceived as less smart than those with whom she has comparable or superior ability, that she will likely fail to progress and not be suited for jobs for which she is perfectly capable? When we ignore differences in capability, we convince those who are capable that they will not be perceived as such. We bolster the view of those who are not, and never were, capable that failures are the fault of bias rather than the genetic lottery.

It is important to note that the current evidence supporting differences between the sexes at the top end of the IQ distributions does not entail that all differences of representation in academically demanding jobs are the result of these differences. Further, it does not entail that woman are always perceived as less brilliant because they are less brilliant. Even stereotypes that have at least some bases in reality are still stereotypes which are essentially shortcuts that are often wrongly applied to, and affect our perception of, those who do not fit them. Further, there is a very large degree of overlap between the sexes and certainly a lot of women with high IQs. The differences we are seeing are, at the risk of repeating myself, at the very top end of the IQ distribution which means that the majority of men and women will not be impacted in the least by these differences.

On the other hand, let’s say that greater male variability is the primary product of socialisation. First, this would not negate the importance of taking into account current differences in the IQ distribution: it would not help, for example, to force equitable outcomes at high levels if there are not enough women to successfully compete at those levels – regardless of what caused this skew. Instead, research would need to be done to determine how exactly these different distributions are coming about and what could be done to reduce them in the long term.

We must, then, be cautious of four things. One, of suppressing or denying truths that are socially unpopular, the effects of which will always play out in differential outcomes in the real world yet distort our ability to effectively deal with, and interpret, them—to the ultimate disservice of women. Two, of utilising these truths to lazily justify all differential outcomes or to ignore the effects of bias and prejudice that can result from wrongly applying knowledge of the existence of differences in IQ distribution to the individuals in front of us who should only be assessed on their individual capabilities. Third, of conflating differences in IQ distribution with proof of genetic differences between men and women. And fourth, of trying to solve complex problems with surface solutions like forced equitable outcomes.

We could all do with stepping outside of our echo-chambers when it comes to matters such as these which are prone to politicisation from both sides of the spectrum. Whether your echo-chamber more closely resembles publications like the Guardian, the “intellectual dark web”, or something more right wing, the likelihood is you are getting an incomplete picture of the issues at hand packaged up to look neater and more conclusive than the data would allow you to be.

Isobel Marston is Counterweight’s Content Coordinator & a student of philosophy at the University of Southampton.


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.


What Critical Race Theory (or CRT) is and isn’t, who understands it and who doesn’t, and what people’s motivations are for defending or criticising it seem to be the issues dominating the culture wars right now. It is a good thing that we’re talking about contemporary critical theories of race. This particular approach to addressing racism is something we desperately need to have serious discussions about. The problem is that we are largely not having serious discussions about it. Instead, people are quibbling over terms, accusing each other of ignorance or malice and generally talking past each other without engaging the point in any kind of productive way.

The first hindrance to discussing Critical Race Theory is that the discussion generally fails to get past the accusation that the other person doesn’t understand what Critical Race Theory actually is. Often these accusations are correct. Many of the people advocating for CRT seem to believe it is any historically literate understanding of racial history in the USA, how horrendously it oppressed black Americans, why this was bad and how its aftermath is still felt today. Some even seem to think that CRT just means ‘talking about racism.’ Of course, if you believe that this is what CRT is, you will believe that anybody who opposes it is, at best, trying to gloss over a shameful history and, at worst, indifferent to or even supportive of racism. Meanwhile, some opponents of CRT believe it is essentially racism against white people and centred around the belief that all white people are racist, bigoted, and personally responsible for the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. If you understand CRT as the belief that white people are evil and generally inferior, you are going to believe that anyone who advocates it is, at best, a profoundly misguided conspiracy theorist and, at worst, a racist.

Many of the people who are wrong about what CRT is are well-intentioned but missing the point, preventing a more reasonable conversation from making progress. We are essentially looking at a conflict between two positions that can be discussed and evaluated. The critical theories of race approach argues that racism is ordinary (possibly even permanent) and a system embedded in attitudes and language that everyone is socialised into. It argues that we therefore need critical theorists and trainers to make everyone see and affirm their racism in order to dismantle it using certain critical methods. Meanwhile, the liberal approach to addressing racism holds that it is a prejudiced attitude often accompanied by discriminatory behaviours that individuals can adopt or reject, that they already do so to varying extents and that much progress has been made towards the ‘reject’ position. This approach maintains that progress needs to be furthered by consistently opposing the evaluation of people by their race.

However, often what we see is people who are genuinely knowledgeable about what CRT is nitpicking over terminology in pedantic ways and arguing over whether or not the most extreme approaches to ‘anti-racism’ are really CRT. The reality is that current critical theories of race are not identical to the Critical Race Theory that emerged in legal scholarship from the 1970s. Nevertheless, there are many people who are criticising the current manifestation of critical theories of race accurately in relation to their genuine negative impact on the real lives of real people of all races. It is not at all helpful to quibble over terms in these situations when we could be addressing genuine, complex problems and having productive disagreements about substantive issues. Often people choose to claim that a critic does not understand Critical Race Theory rather than engaging with their claims and arguments in order to make it harder for people to put forward their criticisms. It is commonly claimed that the critic simply doesn’t know what they are talking about because they have not studied the theories in higher education. However, neither have most of the people being hit by the impacts of them. Rather than quibbling over whether what critics are criticising is really the theories that emerged in legal studies from the 1970s, let’s address the reality of what critical theories of race look like right now and how they are impacting real people of all races.

The Evolution of an Idea: Materialist and Postmodernist CRT

It is not surprising that the theories have evolved and developed because that’s what ideas do. In this case, the two main branches of CRT – best understood as materialist and postmodern – have evolved into the two branches of what is known as Critical Social Justice (CSJ) approaches to anti-racism. These are still best understood as materialist and postmodern. In the transition and in both branches, they have become more concrete and dogmatic and also simplified considerably. This is unsurprising as CSJ anti-racism operates mostly within cultural studies and pedagogy – the study of approaches to teaching – while CRT operated mostly within legal studies. You will find more detailed information on this in my and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories, which has a chapter on CRT, which was part of the second generation that we called “applied postmodernism”, and a chapter on current Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, which is part of the third generation that we called “reified postmodernism.”

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by both CRT and CSJ anti-racism having a materialist and postmodern branch. In Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic describe these as the “materialist” or “realist” approach vs the “idealist” approach.

They argue:

This hypothetical question poses an issue that squarely divides critical race theory thinkers—indeed, civil rights activists in general. One camp, which we may call “idealists,” holds that racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude, and discourse. Race is a social construction, not a biological reality, they reason. Hence we may unmake it and deprive it of much of its sting by changing the system of images, words, attitudes, unconscious feelings, scripts, and social teachings by which we convey to one another that certain people are less intelligent, reliable, hardworking, virtuous, and American than others.

A contrasting school—the “realists” or economic determinists—holds that though attitudes and words are important, racism is much more than a collection of unfavorable impressions of members of other groups. For realists, racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status. Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes. Members of this school of thought point out that antiblack prejudice sprang up with slavery and capitalists’ need for labor…

Materialists point out that conquering nations universally demonize their subjects to feel better about exploiting them, so that, for example, planters and ranchers in Texas and the Southwest circulated notions of Mexican inferiority at roughly the same period that they found it necessary to take over Mexican lands or, later, to import Mexican people for backbreaking labor. For materialists, understanding the ebb and flow of racial progress and retrenchment requires a careful look at conditions prevailing at different times in history.

So, the idealists are those who look to attitudes, biases, categorisation, social constructivism and discourses as the sources of racism. I think it is more accurate to refer to these as the ‘postmodernists’ because there are many kinds of idealists, but those who think in this way draw heavily on the work of the poststructuralists, particularly Michel Foucault, and the overall theme is that of postmodernism – a skepticism of the ethos of modernity, especially science, reason, liberalism and progress. This is supported by the citations used by the advocates of this method. Within CRT, the postmodernist branch emerged largely from black feminist thought and is exemplified by Kimberlé Crenshaw who described her concept of intersectionality as “contemporary politics linked to postmodern theory.” Within CSJ approaches to anti-racism, the postmodernists are largely found in critical pedagogy and are exemplified by the approaches of theorists like Robin DiAngelo and Barbara Applebaum, who look almost entirely at the biases, attitudes and language believed to dominate the thought of white people. They frequently cite Michel Foucault to do so.

Meanwhile the materialists are those who look at economic, legal, political and governmental systems to see where the power imbalance lies. They do so empirically but they tend to cherry-pick statistics in order to read all disparities as evidence of racist discrimination. This gets in the way of addressing those that actually are while also neglecting to address those that are caused by something else – e.g., class, culture, geography – and so are of limited value for fixing genuine injustices. They tend towards cynicism and pessimism. Within Critical Race Theory, the key figure is Derrick Bell, who developed Interest Convergence Theory. This holds that white people only allow rights to black people when it benefits themselves. Bell also argued that racism has not improved at all and is, in fact, permanent.

Michelle Alexander also takes a materialist approach and has supported the ‘racism is permanent’ thesis but is a more rigorous empirical scholar generally, although her scope can also be counterproductively narrow. Within CSJ approaches to anti-racism, the key materialist figure is Ibram X. Kendi. His work also focuses on structures more than biases and, although he holds that racist ideas lead to racist policies, he believes that people of all races can choose not to hold racist ideas, unlike DiAngelo et al. He is thus bound neither to postmodern discourse theory nor the ‘racism is permanent’ position. However, he does take the materialist stance of systematically closing down any other option than racism as a cause of and explanation for disparities.

So, What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:


Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

and sets out four key tenets:

First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.

This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this.  In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.

Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.

This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.

This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true.

A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.

There is much evidence that there is no unique voice of colour, and although there is good reason to think that people who have experienced racism may well have more perspective on it, they tend to have different perspectives. CRTs are more likely to regard those who agree with them as authoritative than those who disagree – i.e  “Yes” to Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshsaw but “No” to Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele.

The British Educational Research Association has formed its own overlapping list of tenets of Critical Race Theory:

1)  Centrality of Racism

For this they cite Delgado and Stefancic above.

2)  White Supremacy

The BERA paper clarifies that “‘White supremacy’ does not relate to the obvious crude race hatred of extremist groups but to forces that saturate society as a whole.” These are quite vague but include material benefits and ideas that can be held consciously or unconsciously.

3)  Voices of People of Color/Storytelling

This again focuses on those who feel ‘minoritised’ and the “depleting effects of racism” and focuses on experiences and fictionalised stories that convey those experiences. This was used often by Derrick Bell who included stories about a fictional island that only black people could breathe on, and a scenario in which aliens demanded all the black Americans in exchange for great benefits, to the agreement of white Americans. It is unclear that all voices and stories told by people of colour are equally valued with those who agree with CRT approaches.

4)  Interest Convergence

This is the idea mentioned above that white people only offer equality to black people when it benefits white people. It neglects the possibility that very many white people might genuinely have moral commitments to racial equality due to empathy and principles.

5)  Intersectionality

The framework set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw in which multiple variables of subordinated identity need to be considered at the same time as race – i.e. gender and sexuality. This can be done in a rigorous and reasonable way but is also hampered by Crenshaw’s commitment to postmodernism and rejection of universal liberalism. This tends to lead, in practice, to being suspicious of empirical studies into racism and other bigotries and to being divisive, creating a hierarchy of competing oppressions. I discussed that here.

Meanwhile, Payne Hiraldo, of the University of Vermont, set out five tenets of Critical Race Theory for use in higher education. These are:

1) Counter-Storytelling— “A framework that legitimizes the racial and subordinate experiences of marginalized groups.”

Because society is believed to be constructed by stories told by dominant groups, counter-stories are believed to counteract that. See above.

2)  The Permanence of Racism

This is a variation on the ordinariness of racism but stronger in its belief that racism is everywhere and in everything and doesn’t go away or reduce, but just changes in manifestations and so needs critical methodologies to detect it.

3)  Whiteness as Property

This incorporates ideas of white privilege and white supremacy in the idea that being white itself bestows material benefits on people. Although it originates with a somewhat dense and sophisticated argument by the legal scholar Cheryl Harris it tends to be rather simplistic and reductionist when broken down. See ‘White supremacy’ above.

4)  Interest Convergence

See above.

5)  The Critique of Liberalism

Liberalism is consistently criticised in CRT for individualistic and universalist approaches to overcoming racism, such as “colorblindness” – the commitment to not evaluating people by their race – equal opportunities, equal rights under the law, and meritocracy. Liberalism is often represented as having a tendency to overlook systemic racism by assuming an already “level playing field” when, in reality, genuine liberalism seeks to achieve one by removing barriers.

Finally, The Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education presents yet another variation on these same themes:

1) Centrality of Racism

A variation on the ‘ordinariness’ or ‘permanence’ of racism.

2)  Challenges to Claims of Neutrality, Color Blindness, and Meritocracy

The rejection of liberalism.

3)  Whites as Beneficiaries of Racial Remedies

Interest convergence theory.

4)  Centrality of Experiential Knowledge

The unique voice of colour and storytelling.

5)  Commitment to Working towards Social Justice

This commitment involves using the methods of Critical Race Theory rather than liberalism, obviously.

It should be clear by now that CRT is not just talking about historical and contemporary racism with a view to overcoming it – something that all approaches to addressing racism do – but a set of core beliefs that racism is ordinary and/or permanent; that white supremacy is everywhere; that white people don’t oppose racism unless it suits them; that there is a unique voice of colour that just so happens to be the one that agrees with CRT; that lived experience and story-telling are primary ways of revealing racism; that liberalism and the Civil Rights Movement approach are bad; and that working for social justice means using the critical theories of race set out above.

These can all be disagreed with – and often are – by people of all races who still genuinely oppose racism.

So, what is Critical Social Justice Anti-racism?

Let’s look first at Kendi’s approach. Here are some key thoughts of his from How To Be an Anti-Racist:

What is racism?

Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities.

Okay, so what are racist policies and ideas?

We have to define them separately to understand why they are married and why they interact so well together. In fact, let’s take one step back and consider the definition of another important phrase: racial inequity. Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of all three racial groups living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies, or, better, nineties. A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups…

Since the 1960s, racist power has commandeered the term “racial discrimination,” transforming the act of discriminating on the basis of race into an inherently racist act. But if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor of or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. Someone reproducing inequity through permanently assisting an overrepresented racial group into wealth and power is entirely different than someone challenging that inequity by temporarily assisting an underrepresented racial group into relative wealth and power until equity is reached. The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. So, what is a racist idea?

A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society.  An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.

Is this Critical Race Theory? Not really. It shares some common elements in that it uses the materialist approach of reading all disparities as evidence of racism and in its rejection of liberalism, but the legal scholars of the original CRT would find this naive because of all the missing elements and because they believed law and policy changes made very little difference. Kendi does not claim there is a unique voice of color or that white people only support racial equality when it suits them. He does not really have a developed critical theory of race. He has a simplistic solution which involves equalising outcomes and a claim that anybody who opposes this is advocating racist policies because they have racist ideas. While liberals are likely to share his concerns about simplistic and racist arguments that attempt to explain disparities as being due to biological deficiencies of black people or self-imposed subcultural mores among black communities, his equally simplistic explanation of all disparities being caused by racism does not help. It just makes it even more difficult to look at disparities in a more rigorous and multi-faceted way.

Kendi’s ideas are most strongly countered by two black intellectuals who study race and racism – Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele. Sowell is an economist with a strong libertarian bent. He looks at data that offers disconfirming evidence for Kendi’s approach and suggests other reasons for disparities. Steele is more of a conservative who argues that white guilt has led to affirmative action which disempowers black people. Their work is valuable, but liberals are likely to find both of them incomplete as well as they place primary responsibility on the black individual to sort out their own upward mobility. This is difficult enough for anyone, but particularly for African Americans, who have only been allowed to be upwardly mobile for two generations. The solution to racial disparities is unlikely to be found either in placing all responsibility on white society or on black individuals.

If Kendi has a critical theory of race, it comes down to this: There is no such thing as ‘not-racist.’ There is only ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist.’

In his rejection of liberal colour-blindness and his dichotomous thinking, Kendi shares one tenet of CRT and the dogmatic spirit of the materialists. With his moralistic assertion that one must agree with him or be racist and the great influence his work has on society, he mostly stands in the way of more rigorous study of disparities by making people fearful to undertake them.

More influential in current Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, however, is the work of Robin DiAngelo. It is her postmodern cultural constructivist ideas that most people currently criticising CRT are raising concerns about.

In her book with Ozlem Sensoy Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (2017), the authors write:

While some scholars and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments, in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints.

They define the mainstream standpoint on social justice in this way:

Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the principles of “fairness” and “equality” for all people and respect for their basic human rights. Most people would say that they value these principles.

A critical approach to social justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e., divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.

The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:

All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.

These social groups are valued unequally in society.

Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a society.

Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources between groups of people.

Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice. [All emphases mine.]

The authors go on to say that, based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to:

Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels.

Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power.

Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it.

Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society.

Is this not very clearly a critical theory of race and an evolution of Critical Race Theory?

At the 2014 National Race and Pedagogy Conference at Puget Sound University that included DiAngelo, the following tenets were posited:

Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.

Racism is an institutionalized, multilayered, multilevel system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color, as socially identified, and disproportionately benefits whites.

All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations.

All white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions.

No-one chose to be socialized into racism so no-one is bad, but no-one is neutral.

To not act against racism is to support racism.

Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No-one is ever done.

The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation?

The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.

The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged.

Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.

In all of this, it is explicit that DiAngelo and her collaborators do maintain the key tenets of the older CRTs. They clearly believe that racism is ordinary; that white supremacy is everywhere; that white people don’t oppose racism because it suits them; that there is a unique voice of colour and it’s the one that agrees with them; that lived experience is a primary way of revealing racism; that liberal individualism is bad; and that working for social justice means using the critical theories of race set out by people like them.

The theories of DiAngelo and the other Critical Social Justice anti-racists are clearly not identical to the earlier legal theories, however. They contain less materialism, focus much less on law and much more on culture, draw more explicitly on Foucauldian notions of discourse, make little to no mention of storytelling and are much more simplistic and accessible. But their work quite clearly consists of critical theories of race that have been significantly influenced by Critical Race Theory. In Nice Racism, DiAngelo cites Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw among her influences alongside other Critical Race Theory scholars and more contemporary Critical Social Justice theorists of anti-racism and decolonial studies.

If it helps to call the current anti-racist theories “contemporary critical theories of race” rather than “Critical Race Theory”, do so, but for goodness’ sake, let’s stop the endless quibbling about terminology and talk about the ideas that have deeply infiltrated universities, employment, education, mainstream media, social media and general culture.

This is vitally important for two reasons.  Firstly, we need to be able address racism in society ethically and effectively. Secondly and relatedly, individuals need to be allowed to have their own views about how racism works and their own ethical frameworks for opposing it. They need to be able to discuss and compare them. This will help with achieving the first goal.

When it comes to discussing contemporary critical theories of race, we need to be able to talk about what the current theories actually say and advocate for and whether they are ethical and effective. Many people from a wide range of political, cultural, racial, religious and philosophical backgrounds would say “No” they are not, and they should be able to make their case for alternative approaches.

It is also vitally important that we are able to talk about how much influence these theories already have and how much they should have on society in general and on government, employment, mainstream media, social media and education in particular, and whether this influence is largely positive or negative. From my time listening to clients of Counterweight, I would respond, “Way too much” and “Largely negative” to these questions.

We need to be able to consider whether the advocates of Critical Social Justice antiracism, particularly those in positions of power, are inclusive of alternative approaches to addressing racism that are held by people with different political, cultural, philosophical and religious worldviews. Clients of Counterweight, many of whom are not white or western, who are ideologically diverse, and who often find this whole western CSJ phenomenon bewildering, tell us they are not.

Most importantly, we need to be able to measure and discuss what effects these theories have on reducing racism, increasing social cohesion and furthering the goals of social justice. Are they achieving that or are they increasing racial tensions, decreasing social cohesion and being the driving force for many injustices in society while creating a culture of fear, pigeonholing people of racial minority into political stereotypes, and silencing the voices of those who dissent? I strongly believe, based on the reports coming into Counterweight, that it is the latter. However, I am willing to be persuaded to think differently, so let’s talk.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.

Policymakers in GOP-led states like Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma are currently proposing that Critical Race Theory (CRT) or any of the current more popular theories that draw on that school of thought and are probably best called ‘Critical Social Justice concepts of Anti-Racism’ (but that isn’t very catchy) should be banned or limited in schools. Counterweight exists to help people, including teachers, parents and children who are having authoritarian Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideas imposed on them to resist. This leads some people to think we might support bans on teaching CRT in schools. Do we?

The simple answer to this question is “No.” We are a liberal humanist organisation that upholds freedom of belief, freedom of expression and viewpoint diversity. We consistently oppose people trying to ban ideas they don’t like and we do so for two reasons. Firstly, because freedom of conscience is an essential individual liberty and secondly because prohibition makes defeating the bad ideas much more difficult. There isn’t a simple answer because this isn’t a simple question and the public conversation around this issue is a mess. This mess is largely caused by people confusing and conflating two sets of distinctions that really cannot be confused or conflated if one wants to approach the issue from a liberal perspective. These two things are:

1) The difference between teaching about ideas and indoctrinating in ideas.

When we teach children about more than one set of ideas, including ideas that conflict with one another, we prepare them to be able to engage in the adult world where they will encounter many ideas, having already learned something of them as well as having been encouraged to evaluate and compare ideas and make arguments for and against them. When we indoctrinate children in one set of ideas, we put them at a disadvantage for engaging with the adult world of ideas and make them less able to comprehend or cope with ideas that differ from their own or make arguments about them.

2) The difference between disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas and banning expression.

When we prevent children from being forced to affirm any ideas, we allow them freedom of belief and encourage them to make up their own minds about whether the ideas are good or not. When we ban certain ideas from being taught to children in schools, they are denied the opportunity to think about them and evaluate them until they are forced to cope with diverse viewpoints in the adult world.

Teaching about ideas and disallowing coerced affirmation of ideas are thoroughly liberal and encourage informed critical thinking and tolerance of viewpoint diversity. Indoctrinating in ideas and banning expression of ideas is profoundly illiberal and discourages informed critical thinking and promotes intolerance of viewpoint diversity. This is very basic liberalism, in principle. In practice, things can become messy as individuals can claim to be upholding the liberal stance while actually enforcing the illiberal one, either deliberately, using a “motte and bailey” move, or due to a genuine misunderstanding of liberalism which is regrettably common.

The difficulty of threading this needle is exacerbated by the confused rhetoric around this issue which seems to be coming from everywhere. It comes from both Democrat and GOP policy makers themselves, mainstream media and political pundits from the left, right and centre, academics within the field of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and members of the general public engaged in the culture wars.

Jon Street and Audrey Conklin write for Fox News about Joe Biden’s Department of Education intention to set up grants for schools that:

take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities, and discriminatory policy and practice in American history; incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives and perspectives on the experience of individuals with disabilities; Encourage students to critically analyze the diverse perspectives of historical and contemporary media and its impacts; Support the creation of learning environments that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, and experiences of all students; and contribute to inclusive, supportive, and identity-safe learning environments.

The grounds for this grant are extremely vague and thus widely open to interpretation. It is impossible for any historically aware American not to know that racial inequality was enshrined in American law and culture for most of its history and impossible to teach history honestly without including this! The inclusion of diverse perspectives is good and so is critical analysis of them. However, validating the diversity, identity and experiences of all students is impossible as they are bound to disagree with each other even when they have the same identities, and so it is entirely unclear what an “identity-safe learning environment” would look like and how this is compatible with the critical analysis of diverse racial perspectives. This “identity-safe” condition would seem to exclude the teaching of texts like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which argues that at least one identity (white identity) is inherently negative. It is possible, but unlikely, that that is its intention.

Conservatives are convinced that the grant supports inclusion of such texts and they may well be right. However, the way some have responded is concerning. Street and Conklin report that Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) have sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urging the Biden administration to reconsider the grant, arguing that it is “antithetical to the American Dream” and saying “It is therefore counterproductive and even dangerous to allow our vulnerable school children to be taught the falsehoods prevalent in the 1619 Project or in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Similarly, Mark Moore writes that “Republicans in Texas are also moving ahead to forbid the teaching of ‘woke philosophies’ like critical race theory, arguing that ‘traditional history’ should be taught in classrooms.”

This response from Republicans quite clearly falls on the illiberal side of the two issues by assuming that any teaching about the 1619 Project, Dr Kendi’s work, power struggles, “woke philosophies” or critical race theory will be tantamount to indoctrinating in them and thus proposes banning expression of them to children. They also advocate alternative teachings about “the American dream” and “traditional history”. But whose dreams and which traditions, exactly? Americans have many but it seems likely they are referring to conservative ones. If so, it is not children being indoctrinated they are worried about per se but children being indoctrinated into the “wrong” ideas.

When Natalie Allison writes for The Tennessean, she says: “Critical race theory teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that people who are white benefit from it. The concept and whether schools, churches and other corporations should subscribe to it has been a source of controversy within institutions for several years but has received heightened attention in recent months.

Herein lies the problem. Churches may subscribe to whatever ideas they like, and corporations have a certain amount of freedom to set their own values, but schools should not subscribe to any ideology at all. They should however educate children about a variety of them, when they reach an age where learning about more complex topics like politics and philosophy are appropriate, in order to prepare them to enter universities or simply the adult world.

Allison says, “The rest of the amendment, filed as an amendment in the House earlier this week by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, prohibits public or charter schools from teaching that:

  • One race or sex is superior;
  • Any individuals are ‘inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive’ because of their race or sex;
  • A person should receive adverse treatment due to their race or sex;
  • Their moral character is determined by race or sex;
  • A person bears responsibility for past actions by other members of their race or sex;
  • A person should feel discomfort or other psychological distress because of their race or sex;
  • A meritocracy is racist or sexist or designed to oppress members of another race or sex;
  • The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
  • Promoting the violent overthrow of the U.S. government;
  • Promoting division or resentment between race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation or class;
  • Ascribing character traits, values, moral codes, privileges or beliefs to a race;
  • The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
  • Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
  • Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

But what does “teaching that” mean? Does it mean children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas are true without being given any counterviews? If so, this is a legitimate protection of children from indoctrination. Or does this mean that children shouldn’t be taught that these ideas exist and encouraged to critically analyse them alongside others? If the latter, then children will enter the world unprepared to encounter these ideas and completely inexperienced in evaluating them or arguing for or against them.

As Adam Harris wrote for The Atlantic:

The language of these bills is anodyne and fuzzy—compel, for instance, is never defined in the Idaho legislation—and that ambiguity appears to be deliberate….“The vagueness of the language is really the point,” Leah Cohen, an organizer with Granite State Progress, a liberal nonprofit based in Concord, told me. “With this really broad brushstroke, we anticipate that that will be used more to censor conversations about race and equity.”

The effects of this vagueness of both Democratic and Republican policymakers and their failure to spell out what they wish to promote or ban or limit does not help the general public to make informed and thoughtful evaluations of the issues.

As Conor Friedersdorf wrote:

In a recent Atlantic/Leger poll, 52 percent of respondents who identified as Republicans said that states should pass laws banning schools from teaching critical race theory, but just 30 percent of self-identified independents were willing to say the same. Meanwhile, a strong majority of Americans, 78 percent, either had not heard of critical race theory or were unsure whether they had.

Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared:

Texans reject critical race theory and other so-called ‘woke’ philosophies that maintain that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive. These divisive concepts have been inserted into curriculums around the state, but they have no place in Texas schools.

If it were true that Texans reject CRT it would be unlikely that they’d be being taught in Texas schools. Clearly some Texans don’t reject CRT ideas and very likely most of them don’t know what they are. Does it not seem that a solution to this would be to teach Texan children about them and present counter arguments, thus preparing them for encountering them and being able to engage with them in the world at large? This idea seems unpalatable to many conservative commentators, as I have found repeatedly when addressing the issue on social media. I have been told very forcefully by many conservatives that children do not need to be taught about Critical Race Theory at all.

This seems very short-sighted and alarming, not least because my own book on the subject, Cynical Theories, which includes both a chapter on Critical Race Theory and a chapter on Critical Social Justice approaches to anti-racism, has just been adapted for young adult readers and we hope to persuade schools to include it in curricula. It suggests a distinct lack of confidence in either the persuasiveness of one’s own political views or the critical thinking skills of young people. I feel confident that when presented with liberal approaches to anti-racism vs CSJ ones, the superiority of the liberal approach will be quite apparent. Surely conservatives, if they believe strongly enough in the validity of their own political arguments, should want them to be compared to those of CSJ? The conservative activist, Christopher Rufo, seemed to see no worth in teaching about CRT at all:

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To be fair, many conservatives who have insisted that CRT should not be taught seem to doubt not so much their own ideas or the minds of young people, but that schools or teachers can be trusted to teach political and philosophical views in a neutral and balanced manner. As Rufo then confirmed, it is coercion and indoctrination into a “Neo-Marxist ideology” that concerned him more than teaching about. However, I’m not sure “shaping the speech of the state in pursuit of common values” is compatible with the liberal aim for freedom of belief and viewpoint diversity:

Other Twitter users were sceptical that teaching about CRT could or would ever be done alongside other ideas and with the children being encouraged to critique it. CRT, I was told repeatedly, does not allow criticism of itself and instead insists that everyone must simply affirm its tenets. This is true, but that means that diverse political worldviews should not be taught by Critical Race Theorists who hold their own views to be unquestionable. Or by liberals, Marxists, libertarians or conservatives who are unable to accept and encourage dissent. In fact, if the students cannot tell which of the political ideologies their teacher herself subscribes to, that teacher has done her job well:

I am sympathetic to scepticism that political ideas can ever be taught or received in an objective fashion but maintain that this should always be the aim rather than banning teaching about them. Some people seem to believe that this is a hopeless pipe dream, or that I am simply naively unaware that there is an educational imbalance where CSJ ideas are concerned, even though Counterweight has already very publicly addressed this as a problem and supported many parents in addressing it:

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So, I am not arguing that conservatives are wrong to believe that authoritarian CSJ ideas are being taught as true in schools. At Counterweight, we have seen more evidence of this than most people ever will. We have also helped, supported and connected concerned parents and teachers who have come to us for help in addressing it. I am also not unaware that advocates of CRT and CSJ approaches to racism genuinely are trying to get schools to teach it as true and claiming racism and preservation of white privilege as the only reason anyone would object to this (conveniently ignoring all the black people who object to it for a variety of reasons).


Marcus Johnson, writing about the Idaho bill, amply demonstrates this:

At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard. America has for nearly all of its history been politically dominated by white men… But in an increasingly diverse society with a rising multicultural class, there are more and more voices who are challenging existing power structures. And that is ultimately what this debate over critical race theory is: It’s about who gets to define what it means to be American, who gets to define how U.S. institutions work. And that’s what the discomfort with the theory amounts to: It is a threat to those who have always had the power to define us as a country. They are now losing the power to shape that narrative, and the people gaining it—finally—are people of color.

Here we see, yet again, the standpoint epistemology that ties knowledge to racial identity with the clear implication that white men will tell one story and “people of color” another. In reality, many adherents to Critical Race Theory are white while many opponents of it are not. We certainly should not want children taught that their race determines what their politics should be and that any disagreement with CRT can only indicate a wish to preserve the power of white people. With this claim, Mr. Johnson provides justification of the fears many people have that the teaching of Critical Race Theory will not be done in an objective way and that disagreement with it or inclusion of counterviews will not be considered legitimate or even allowed.

State Senator Carl Crabtree, one of the lawmakers behind the proposed legislation in Idaho, has spoken to this fear:

There are concerns that, in isolated instances, students have felt intimidated or coerced into certain ideologies. Every student deserves a learning environment where they can think freely and learn without prejudice. We want our students to learn about race in America without being led to predetermined conclusions. HB 377 does not prohibit the teaching or learning of any subject, it protects a student’s right to formulate their own opinions and ideas.

Here, Senator Crabtree expresses the liberal standpoint on both of the important distinctions by opposing indoctrination in in favour of teaching about and asserting the difference between banning belief in things and coercing belief in things. There is no talk of replacing one form of indoctrination with another such as the “American Dream” or “traditional history” or “shaping speech to common values” and he explicitly rules out the prohibition of any ideas which includes CRT. It is to be hoped that the senator consistently makes such distinctions with such clarity and that other Republicans and Democrats do so too.

But Amnar Akbar, associate professor of law, seems to dismiss concerns about coercion when, speaking about Tennessee, she asserted to The Hill:

The term critical race theory is being used by Republicans in a loose way to capture all sorts of critical thought about the histories and legacies of racism in this country. It’s a bogeyman that they’re constructing around critical attention to the history of the country.

Antonio Parkinson too was both dismissive and accusatory when he said, in the same piece:

Race is a very, very uncomfortable subject here in the Tennessee legislature, and especially having those conversations in truth. There’s a lot of fragility and defensiveness when we try to have these conversations. This goes back to the question of, is America racist? These conversations are uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially people that benefit from the institutional and structural racism that exists in America.

Meanwhile, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the professor of law who is credited for the concept of intersectionality and the naming of Critical Race Theory claimed that “attacks on critical race theory are grounded in reactionary concern about racial progress” and said:

The attacks on critical race theory in Idaho and across the country are evidence of a frightening truth: Republican legislators are using a phantom threat to justify jaw-dropping attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and a society’s understanding of its history.

So conservatives are not wrong to fear that CSJ approaches to anti-racism include some very racist ideas or to point out that they consistently reject criticisms or counterviews as an attempt to preserve racial inequality or that CSJ ideas have been taught as established fact in schools. They do and they have and children must be protected against this indoctrination. They do go wrong when they try to ban these ideas or replace them with other (conservative) ideas rather than insisting on clearer legislation that sets out a practical plan for teaching about a range of views in as objective a way as possible and prevents indoctrination in any one set of ideas.

It is particularly strange that the difference between banning certain ideologies and not coercing children into affirming certain ideologies seems to be unclear to many Americans. It is precisely the same difference between banning Christianity and not forcing people to go to church. Citizens of liberal democracies generally don’t have much difficulty with understanding this distinction and easily understand that freedom of religion includes both the right to practice any religion and the right not to be forced to practice any religion. America is the liberal democracy that was founded on this principle which was then enshrined in its constitution. American conservatives who take great pride in their nation as the “Land of the Free” should understand it best of all. Many of them clearly do and yet it seems many do not. This is alarming. An education that teaches children the basic tenets of various worldviews and arguments for and against each one and encourages them to think critically for themselves about which, if any, they find most convincing and ethical is something that is sorely needed in the current dangerously polarised political landscape of the United States.

Helen Pluckrose is the Founder of Counterweight and co-author of Cynical Theories. She is a liberal humanist.


Setting the stage

I think the only universally shared memory we have is the elementary school fire drill. We all remember the principal over the intercom, the loud buzzing of the alarm, and the teacher announcing that we are to put down everything, get in line, and walk single file toward the exit. Anyone who went to public school or worked in an office building has done this so often that for many of us the sound of the fire alarm means, “time for a fire drill” and not, “there’s a fire”. This has gotten to the point where when there actually is a fire, someone has to say “this is not a drill”; a phrase that is used with such frequency it has become almost cliché.

This is how I feel about discussing education.

Various theories about how our education systems are falling apart, being subverted by various interests, and failing our children, have circulated for years in various quarters. In fact, there is an entire industry of books claiming to know what is wrong in education.

In light of that, I have no idea how to write this essay without blending into the chorus of voices who think one thing or another is wrong with schools. In a world where “this is not a drill” is so cliché that it gets used to announce the arrival of the latest celebrity couple, I don’t quite know how to ring the alarm in education without sounding like, well, an alarmist.

With that said, I think there is a significant problem in education, and I would like to write about it without sounding like a conspiracy theorist. So, I will try to lay this out as clearly and carefully as I can, with an eye to being as level headed as possible. I will also cite relevant portions from the relevant literature. It is my hope that when all is said and done this is not treated as yet another fire drill.

A new theory emerges

There is a school of thought in education, which I will refer to as the Critical School of Education, and its proponents seek to use education as a vehicle for spreading their political ideology and worldview. Those who endorse the Critical School of Education do not think the goal of education is to teach children to read, write and do math while helping to prepare them for life in the world, but rather see education as a “site of political struggle” and a vehicle for radical social change. To put it bluntly, these thinkers believe the role of the teacher is not primarily to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but instead to teach students Critical Social Justice. The theory of teaching they use to justify this is called “Critical Pedagogy”.

I realize this sounds like a conspiracy, but I can’t do anything about that. What I can do is to take you through a brief survey of the relevant literature so you can see exactly how this is happening. I do not mean to alarm you, but I do mean to raise an alarm. Critical Pedagogy, much like other Critical Social Justice literature, is difficult to read, full of jargon, beset by abstract theories, and in many places disconnected from the world. Its adherents sometimes admit as much. That said, I will quote them at length so no one can accuse me of misrepresenting them.

A wonderful and clear survey of how Critical Pedagogy developed comes to us in the 2016 book The Critical Turn in Education by Isaac Gottesman. What makes the book so useful is that Gottesman is not trying to provide a massive and exhaustive survey of the entire field of education, but rather a brief and readable survey of key concepts in Critical Pedagogy and how they fit together. This means the book is clear; it says the quiet part out loud.

Gottesman begins with the following quote:

“To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States[sic], “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom” (p. 263). After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor.

He continues:

The turn to critical Marxist thought is a defining moment in the past 40 years of educational scholarship, especially for educational scholars who identify as part of the political left. It introduced the ideas and vocabulary that continue to frame most conversations in the field about social justice, such as hegemony, ideology, consciousness, praxis, and most importantly, the word ‘critical’ itself, which has become ubiquitous as a descriptor for left educational scholarship. Initially sequestered in curriculum studies and sociology of education, today critical scholarship is frequently published in the journals of some of the field’s most historically conservative areas, such as educational administration and science education. The critical turn radicalized the field.

The initial claim of Gottesman’s book is that Critical Marxist thought has radicalized the field of education, and Gottesman is in favor of this development. Now, as you will see, it is not the case that the field of education has become straightforwardly Marxist, and I am not arguing that, but that is where the story begins.

The focus on Marxism in the Critical School was most pronounced in Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist who also worked as an educator. Friere’s most influential contribution to the Critical School’s Critical Pedagogy comes in the form of his book The pedagogy of the oppressed. Freire argues that teaching is a political issue, teaching methods are a political issue, and that educational theories generally are also political theories. Freire thought that inherent in any education system are assumptions about people, authority, the use of power, and what counts as a good life. Freire thought that education was inherently political and that education is to be used as part of a program of radical social change.

Freire claimed that the role of the teacher is to bring political awareness into the classroom, creating in the student an awareness of politics and a critical awareness of where they were located politically according to Marxist political theory. In other words, the goal is to have students become critically aware of the political situation so they can create the revolutionary change the Marxists sought. As Gottesman puts it:

For Freire, being critical thus meant recognizing oppression, acting against it, doing so in solidarity with others who seek revolutionary change, and doing so continuously. It is this critical educational process that Pedagogy of the Oppressed [sic] articulates as the most important feature of constructing movements for radical social change.

In practice, this type of thinking gets put into practice in the form of radical teachers using their classrooms as places to teach radical fringe left politics to students. And Freire is no obscure scholar. His work has been cited more than 440,000 times. For some context, Albert Einstein has been cited around 137,000 times.

Freire took the first step towards the politicization of education, something which Henry Giroux, Freire’s greatest and most prolific disciple, would openly acknowledge. When Freire first wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s his work was ignored, but in the ‘70s and early 1980s it was Giroux who played a key role in bringing Freire’s work into mainstream education colleges.

Giroux first read Freire in the early 1970s when someone gave him a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed while he was working as a high school teacher. He then left teaching and went into the academy where he began making use of Freire’s work. He finally met Freire in 1983 and worked with him to help disseminate his work in North America. Giroux himself said Freire was his greatest influence and gives him credit for marking the moment when Critical Pedagogy came into its own. If Freire lit the match of Critical Pedagogy Giroux poured gas on the fire.

Giroux took the substance of what Freire was doing in Brazil and then adapted it in a more nuanced way to an American context. Giroux wanted to move away from the kind of economic reductionism of the Marxists who he thought were reducing complex social phenomena to the fallout of economic issues like poverty.

Giroux made two major moves which I think will help us understand what he was arguing. The first is to argue that teachers are not and should not be politically neutral and that politics is central to teaching. The second is to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory.

According to Gottesman:

Giroux sought to develop a Critical Pedagogy, an approach to education that, on the one hand, rooted itself in the critical Marxist tradition’s conception of the power of human agency and in its theoretical analysis of ideology and culture, and on the other hand, embraced, counter to the position of many in the Marxist tradition, the possibility of social reform and the realization of democratic socialism through complete engagement with the liberal public sphere and thus the institutions, including the modes of production, of the liberal nation-state. For Giroux, Critical Pedagogy was not a project committed to revolutionary Marxism, an intellectual and political tradition that deeply influenced Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; rather, Critical Pedagogy was a project committed to socialism through radical reform.

So, according to Gottesman—who agrees with and affirms the use of Critical Pedagogy—Giroux wants to use education to bring about socialism through radical reform. The goal is to “free” people from having to live in a western capitalist democracy.

I would be tempted to say “this is not a drill” if it were not so clichéd.

Further, Gottesman isn’t taking Giroux out of context in his assessment. Giroux says explicitly in his 1988 book Teachers as Intellectuals: “The neo-Marxist position, it seems to us, provides the most insightful and comprehensive model for understanding the nature of schooling and developing an emancipatory program for social education.”

To be clear: Henry Giroux is arguing that the role of the teacher, whether in the university or in the public elementary school, is to use their classroom to teach revolutionary politics to the children so they grow up to create some kind of socialist society. He thinks that the goal of education is not math, writing, or reading (although those are useful tools). The real long-term goal of education is to teach children the politics and ideology of the radical left. This is what he is explicitly arguing.

Giroux wants to move away from the economically reductionist view of traditional Marxism and move toward something that operates directly on the social and cultural level.

The second major move Giroux made was to blend Critical Pedagogy with postmodernism and Critical Theory. Giroux wanted to use the tools of Critical Theory and postmodernism to attack and dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism. He began his work by attempting to theorize Critical Pedagogy through the lens of Critical Theory, but eventually brought in the machinery of postmodernism as a way of trying to dissolve the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism.

Giroux explains why he uses postmodernism in his 1992 book Border Crossings:

Rather than separating reason from the terrain of history , place, and desire, Postmodernism argues that reason and science can only be understood as a part of a broader historical struggle over the relationship between language and power. This is not merely an epistemological issue, but one that is deeply political and normative. Gary Peller makes this clear by arguing that what is at stake in this form of criticism is nothing less than the dominant liberal commitment to Enlightenment culture. He writes:

“indeed the whole way we conceive of liberal progress (overcoming prejudice in the name of truth, seeing through the distortions of ideology to get at reality, surmounting ignorance and superstition with the acquisition of knowledge) is called into question. Postmodernism suggests that what has been presented in our social-political and our intellectual traditions as knowledge, truth, objectivity, and reason are actually merely the effects of a particular form of social power, the victory of a particular way of representing the world that presents itself as beyond mere interpretation, as truth itself.”

By asserting the primacy of the historical and the contingent in the construction of reason, authority, truth, ethics, and identity, postmodernism provides a politics of representation and a basis for social struggle.

As you can see, Giroux wants to use postmodernism as a way of going after the Enlightenment liberal assumptions that our current society is based on. So he turns to postmodernism and in the process affirms two ideas:

    1. the postmodern idea that such things as knowledge, truth, objectivity and reason are not absolute and universal.
    2. that the Enlightenment liberal vision of truth, reason, knowledge, and objectivity has come to prominence only because liberals have exercised social power to make those ideas prominent.

In affirming those two ideas Giroux has fully imbibed the postmodern line of thinking that says the Enlightenment view that knowledge is obtained using reason, science, rationality, and objectivity is in fact false.

Further, Giroux thinks that in undercutting the assumptions of Enlightenment liberalism, postmodernism provides a framework for his political struggle against Enlightenment liberalism. It is clear then, that Giroux’s goal here is nothing less than the overturning of the Enlightenment liberal order in favor of some form of socialism that is informed by both postmodernism and neo-Marxism. If this sounds like what we often refer to as “wokeness” or “Critical Social Justice” that is because that is what this is.

What the theory looks like in practice

So far I have only discussed the work of two academics. I have not shown the entirety of the scholarly literature that justifies hijacking the education systems to indoctrinate children into Critical Social Justice because it is too large for a single essay to chronicle. However, there are literally thousands of published academic papers, studies, and books arguing that teaching is a political act and that teachers should teach politics. A brief snippet of news stories of this occurring in schools can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Now I’d like to show you an example of how this is actually implemented in the classroom

In the 2015 book edited by Todd Horton and Lynn Lemisko entitled Educator to Educator, Lynn Lemisko argues in an essay she contributed that it is the role of the teacher to “look past” the official curriculum in order to “trouble” dominant narratives.

What does it mean to look beyond the curriculum? Well, what she means is that she is going to use the mandated lesson plan to teach her political ideology and worldview. She is going to do exactly what Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux advocated for: she’s going to use her classroom as a place of politics. Now, she is not going to refuse to teach the curriculum, she is going to teach past the curriculum. She is going to add her opinion and editorialize the lesson according to her world view.

As an example, let’s look at how Lemisko takes a simple class exercise about the value of technology, and she shows teachers how to hijack it to make it about Critical Social Justice instead (emphases mine):

One of the more difficult approaches to ‘looking beyond’ involves teacher candidates in examining resources, curriculum documents and practices for their silences – that is, what is left ‘unsaid?’. That which is left unsaid arises from the taken-for-granted notions of dominant culture. These implicit notions are hard to uncover because societal or cultural presuppositions are so deeply embedded within our thinking that we do not recognize that which is left out. When educating for social justice, teacher educators need to help teacher candidates learn to focus on both what is explicit (said or visible) and what is implicit (not said or invisible).

So the first thing Lemisko is going to do is tell teachers to refocus their teaching from things that are in the curriculum, to things they think are being left out. That is step one. She continues (emphasis mine):

I have asked teacher candidates to critically examine social studies curriculum documents and suggested learning activities and resources using this double focus. For example, we have examined together a learning activity connected to exploring the concept ‘interdependence’ that is suggested in the Saskatchewan Grades 1 – 5: Social Studies: A Curriculum Guide for the Elementary Level (1995). The explicit purpose of this activity, titled “Doing without” (p. 28) is to have learners identify some specific technologies and contemplate what life would be like without these. However, what is silenced or unsaid in this learning activity is a set of classed attitudes about easy accessibility to wealth and resources

In this section she shows them how to further alter the focus of the activity for the children. The exercise was supposed to be about what life would be like without technology. Lemisko wants teachers to instead focus on what she thinks are attitudes about wealth and resources. She continues (emphasis mine):

In critically examining this suggested activity to find the ‘unsaid’ about socio-economic class, I ask teacher candidates to read the scenarios, think about the implicit assumptions that underpin the descriptions, and prepare to discuss questions such as the following:

What is assumed about accessibility to the resources and technology discussed in the scenarios?

What is assumed about what the families of grade four students must/should have if they need to imagine ‘doing without’?

Here Lemisko tells her teachers in training to ask questions about socio-economic class, rather than what life would be like without certain forms of technology. She wants them to read the activity through the lens of Critical Social Justice rather than through the lens of “what would life be like without this technology?” In getting her teachers in training to do this, she moves the purpose of the activity away from “find out what life would be like without technology” to “let’s talk about class, attitudes, fairness, and Social Justice.”

As you can see, what Lemisko is doing is trying to teach her teachers in training to use the curriculum in ways it was never designed. The goal of the technology activity was never to have a conversation about Social Justice, it was to make the kids aware of technology and its impact on them. It was never meant to be an activity to “make visible” various injustices that the Critical Social Justice movement blames on Enlightenment liberalism.

This is not what the curriculum was designed for, and it was not what the parent signed up for when they decided to send their kids to a public school.

Why the theory goes wrong

The current push to bring Critical Social Justice into education is a terrible idea. Let me explain.

The first point is a fairly straightforward one: it is immoral and illiberal for people to use the public school system to force a certain set of values on children behind their parents’ backs. Simply put, there is no justification for using public schools as a soapbox for a particular ideology. The liberal way is pluralist without being relativist, and that means that schools are places where we teach the children how to engage with each other on liberal terms with respect and civility. Liberalism admits of a wide swathe of values and seeks to equip children with the tools required to think clearly about the world. For a group of people to decide to embed themselves in the school system and use it as a platform to indoctrinate children is unacceptable.

There is a second point about the quality of education and how it suffers when politics are brought into the classroom.

One thing we all intuit naturally when we demand silence in order to concentrate, or we ask not to be distracted, or turn down the radio when looking for an address, is that in order to learn well we need to be able to focus and concentrate on the thing we are trying to learn. We must be able to pay attention. If our attention is divided we are liable to miss out on valuable information.

The modern world is a difficult one, and it requires that our children learn the skills necessary to get by in a world that is driven by technology. In a time when information is the coin of the realm, numeracy and literacy are incredibly important for flourishing. When someone takes a curriculum that is built to discuss technology and redirects the conversation toward their own political ideology, they are teaching their politics at the expense of preparing the child for the world.

It does no good for Lemisko, Giroux, and Freire to think they can weave Social Justice through the curriculum without compromising it. The resources in the classroom are not infinite and neither is a child’s attention span. In making space for Critical Social Justice, something else must be lost. To argue otherwise is to get something for nothing.

What we can do about it

To finish, I’d like to gesture broadly at what can be done.

First off, when this stuff makes it into the curriculum or classroom it is usually a small group of activists that are pushing it. Administrators who do not realize what is happening, or are easily swayed, can give in under the pressure. It is important to be involved in the school board, Parent Teacher Associations, and to make sure you know what children are being taught at school.

When a large organized group of parents makes themselves clear in rejecting this nonsense, that is very often enough to get the administrators to back down and remove the Critical Social Justice indoctrination from the curriculum.

It is important to get other parents who are concerned together. School board meetings, social media campaigns and school board elections are great places to make your voice heard and to let the people who make schooling decisions know this is unacceptable and to hold them accountable. Having organized groups that can carry out various tasks is important. Campaigns to get people onto the school board take time and volunteers, letters to teachers need to be coordinated, getting enough people at meetings to show the school board that the issue is important to parents takes planning. For all these reasons you must be organized.

In these matters the Critical Social Justice activists will not stop pushing. Their entire reason for being revolves around implementing Critical Social Justice in every area of everything in which they are involved. Their entire lives are devoted to this. If we are to be effective we must be as vigilant in our attempts to save our liberal democracy as they are in their attempts to tear it down.


To conclude, I want to simply say that I am not against justice, or fairness, or equality of opportunity. It is not my goal to tear anyone down and I realize that many of the people who teach Critical Pedagogy are well-meaning. One can’t help but listen to Henry Giroux speak and realize that he cares deeply about people. The problem is not that he doesn’t care, the problem is that his ideas are flawed. And for that reason we must keep Critical Pedagogy out of the school system.

Mike Young is a Canadian thinker, writer and essayist. Follow him on twitter at