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This Just In: Humans Are Bad at Everything That’s Important


When future anthropologists study us, they will learn a lot about what’s important to us by looking at our newspapers.

A minority of our news stories cover what’s truly new: scientific discoveries, thriving business startups, or groundbreaking legislation. But most of our news stories are about some human being (or group of human beings) failing, in a very familiar way, to be kind, fair, or honest. Politician caught lying! Violence erupts between Group A and Group B! Company misleads customers for profit! Details at 6.

If we sat down to think about what’s really important to us, we might come up with qualities like fairness, kindness, responsibility, loyalty, and mutual respect. It seems like all of the major problems in the world are caused by a small contingent of bad apples, who simply shun these important qualities and ruin it for kind, responsible, honest and fair people like ourselves.

I think this is wishful thinking. The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves. Our incredulous response to scandal and selfishness suggests that we believe any of us could, at any moment, snap out of our self-interest and dysfunction, and make the world the place it should have been all along.

What makes us distinct from other species, more than anything, is that we’re able to move beyond being impulse-driven, self-interested animals, at least a little bit. We can reflect, we can refrain, we can empathize, we can plan. We can feel our impulses while at the same time understanding that they aren’t always leading us to good things.

In the relatively short time we’ve been able to explore this higher territory, we’ve come to really value these lofty qualities, and we’ve become preoccupied with public figures failing to achieve them. After all, we know it is virtues like fairness, honesty, discipline and kindness that are going to make it easier to be human, to deal with suffering and loss and all the stark realities that come with knowing you’re a vulnerable, animated bag of meat. We desperately want to get ourselves (but especially others) to embody these higher human qualities, which promise to save us from cruelty and misery. But as much as we covet them, we forget that these new capacities are in fact skills, and that as a species we’re generally not very good at them.

Essentially, this higher territory is what we call morality, and I think we tend to greatly overestimate how good we are at it. We’re a species who, as I point out frequently, can barely uphold our New Year’s commitments to ourselves, yet we seem to expect everyone else to be more or less upstanding and incorruptible. Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?

You can make up excuses for this kind of behavior — cognitive dissonance, meritocratic economics, drop-in-the-bucket syndrome — but I think all of that is avoiding the truth about human beings, which is that we are pitifully underdeveloped when it comes to morality. We just happen to be living in that awkward and painful stage where we recognize its supreme importance to our well-being, yet we’re so bad at it we can barely stand ourselves. 

So what am I suggesting we do about this? Two things:

1) That we recognize how hard it is for human beings to be what they aspire to be.

Why are we so shocked that a politician would lie? That a company puts profits ahead of compassion? That everyday people harbor prejudices? That we have such a hard time saving enough for retirement, or giving enough to charity, or not eating too much?

For one thing, it’s so much easier to identify the right thing to do than to actually do it, and when we’re assessing the behavior of others, we only have to do the former. But even with our own selves, we trivialize the difficulty of living up to our moral standards.

To quit smoking, you only have to do one simple thing: avoid putting cigarettes in your mouth. How hard is that? Somehow, very.

How hard is it to treat others as yourself? So incredibly difficult we are bound to spend our lives failing at it.

I’m not suggesting we downplay or deny the harm that our moral failings cause, but to become more accepting of human failing in general, particularly our own. We are too quick to condemn people for not living up to what are actually extremely lofty standards, at least for a creature whose motivations are still largely reptilian.

You might think, “Well, I know I should give more to charity than I do, but I would never lie to my spouse! Only a monster could do that!” That much may be true; you may have the wherewithal to succeed (so far) at Lofty Moral Standard X, but not at Lofty Moral Standard Y. And perhaps you would argue that the standards you meet are more important than the ones you don’t — but maybe you are just lucky in that regard, and can’t really explain why something is straightforward for you that seems nearly impossible for someone else. We should be grateful for the moral wherewithal we do have, and never lose sight of how easy it is to fall short of Complete Moral Upstandingness, and how often we do so ourselves.

The name for this particular combination of empathy and gratitude is forgiveness, which is itself another lofty aspiration of human beings that we are generally terrible at. One crucial understanding we must come to, as a species that is struggling to transcend its amoral animal past, is that we can’t expect our progress to be evenly distributed across individuals of our species. That means you may know how to do the right thing at times others don’t, and for that you should be grateful instead of vindictive.

2) That we take seriously the project of actively working on our virtues.

We do have an instinctive sense of empathy, and maybe a bit of an egalitarian impulse somewhere in our mammalian genes, but that’s not enough to meet our standards for what we think people should be like. For the most part we have to learn how to be that kind of person, and it’s the work of a lifetime. Just look at how a two-year old “shares” a toy with another two-year old, and you can see how much you’ve learned about controlling your impulses and considering the effects your actions have on others.

You could call this kind of acquired humanness wisdom, and the pursuit of wisdom is called philosophy. There’s a running joke in Western culture about the uselessness of a philosophy degree, which is a nearly perfect indication of how unwise our culture really is. We consider education to be useful only insofar as it expands our income, which seems to be our our primary measure of personal development.

But philosophy isn’t useless or boring. It’s how we learn how to be better people, or more specifically, how to become the kind of people we wish others would be. For thousands of years, people have been teaching each other how to be a better partner, overcome envy and greed, be compassionate regardless of our own troubles, imagine better societies, raise better children, and otherwise become less self-interested and easier to be around.

The overarching theme of human wisdom is learning to use our newer, higher capacities, such as reason, compassion, and empathy, to mitigate the dangers of our older, less civilized impulses. But it’s crucial to remember how new these higher capacities are, and how easily our reptilian fears and anxieties can undermine them.

Much of what religion teaches seems to be an attempt to do this — to help us shed our baser motives and find a way to transcend selfishness, carnal desires, envy, laziness, and contempt. While philosophy has much more helpful things to say than scripture tends to, religion does something very important that secular institutions don’t: it asks us to accept how flawed we really are, at least in comparison to what we aspire to be. All kinds of practices, from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism, have always been in the business of helping us overcome our relatively pitiful out-of-the-box state.

So there’s actually a lot we can learn from these traditions, even for unbelievers. We just have to stay aware of the Iron-Age context their parables come from, and the trouble religious institutions themselves have had in overcoming human fallibility. (Skeptics should read Alain de Botton’s brilliant Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.) Religion, after all, is just a subset of philosophy, and we should get help with being human wherever we can find it.

The problem with religion has always been that it so often succumbs to the problem it’s tried to address. But that’s only one example of the bigger human irony I’m getting at here: we could become a better species simply by recognizing how we’re not as great as we think we should be.

When we look at it that way, we find fewer reasons to complain and more reasons to be grateful.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

campbell March 2, 2015 at 2:40 am

“Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?”

Love it. Especially when they also drive a Hummer or SUV and end up slightly overstepping their spot. How dare they? Not only are they inconsiderate assholes, BUT they are also destroying the earth…. Now, where is my yummy craft beer and imported fresh food?

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:14 am

Craft beer will solve all of our ills

Curtis Smale March 4, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Hi David,
I like your blog as well as Karen Salmansohn’s(www.notsalmon.com); and Alain de Botton’s School of Life (even though I am a Christian, as you will see if you check out my blog.) After reading this post, my mind is screaming that, in the interest of being open-minded, you should read C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” It has the theological errors of Purgatory and is not strong enough on salvation by faith alone in Christ for salvation, but I think it is well worth your time, absolutely targeting the issues of morality and humanity that you bring up in this post. Keep up the intelligent and stimulating work. I love your blog and have recommended it to several friends. –Curtis Smale

Mike March 2, 2015 at 3:16 am

I have always seen parallels between your writing and de Botton’s with regard to using philosophy as a guide to every day life. Has he had much influence on your writing? His early works of fiction are beautiful explorations of human folly while using philosophy as a means to understand the human condition.


David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:15 am

Suddenly I am a huge fan, but I have only really been into his work for this last year or so. I’ve never read his fiction… it’s good?

Mike March 2, 2015 at 11:43 am

Yeah his fiction is lovely. He started off writing fiction before moving to non-fiction. Philosophy heavily influences all of his writing. ‘Essays in Love’ is his first novel, which he wrote aged 23. A beautiful book about heartbreak.


Erdal March 2, 2015 at 4:58 am

You keep impressing me with your articles, David. Please keep sharing these thoughts, they’re very much appreciated.
Big fan,

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:16 am

Thanks Erdal.

Dragline March 2, 2015 at 6:07 am

If I didn’t know better, I would think you had just given a sermon on the topic of original sin and the need for forgiveness. Almost straight from the Sermon on the Mount.

I agree that we live fundamentally in an age of vanity, where everyone tries to project perfection and no one ever wants to admit that they were wrong, or just not very good/nice. Then we feign surprise when imperfections are revealed in others, or revel in schadenfreude, while continuing to ignore or hide our own.

I would disagree on the implicit assumption that “we are all the same” in aspiring to the values you describe. There are in fact, “bad apples” out there (what some psychologists would describe as “zero degrees of empathy”), although I agree that you can’t blame everything on them.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves . . .”

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:18 am

I think original sin starts in with the same idea, but takes it too far, which is insisting that we cannot overcome these flaws in this world. As you might guess I don’t think we have future lives in which to work these things out.

Bad apples definitely exist — I wasn’t arguing that they don’t, only disagreeing with the common notion that it is these people who are responsible for the bulk of human problems. I think the trouble with the human world is normal people, committing very common moral failings.

Andrea March 3, 2015 at 4:04 pm

I think humans have taken sin too far. We lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc. We are worse than animals who have no government or schools to keep them in line. It is human sin that separates us from God, each other, and the earth. Humans do well when they reflect God’s spirit working in their life. He created us (in His image) to create with creation in mind not in the way.

Dragline March 3, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Here’s how de Botton incorporates Augustine’s teachings, which are really at the heart of this (original sin and all):


Katie March 2, 2015 at 6:10 am

We’re always quick to question others’ behaviour and yet if we took a good hard look at our own acts we’d soon realise we shouldn’t be so judgmental. Everyone has a story, and most of us are trying to fit into this world the best way we know how. No one’s perfect, we all make mistakes and we’re all still learning. People have good days and bad days. The old adage “treat others as you would like to be treated” is a good one to follow. Most of us would like to be treated with kindness and tolerance. As someone with a degree in philosophy, I loved this article. Thank you.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:20 am

Thanks Katie.

Tony March 8, 2015 at 11:23 pm

I don’t mean to be rude with the following question as I am curious to find the answer: in what ways a philosophy degree helps you in everyday life? Do you think you could do better overall without it? worse without it? I’m not asking about monetary income – I’m asking about your gain as a person, as a human being.

David Cain March 13, 2015 at 10:16 am

The qualification itself, maybe not much — but studying philosophy means studying some of the clearest and wisest responses to human problems that we all deal with, like sadness, indecisiveness, suffering, etc. For some everyday life examples:

-Reading what the Stoics wrote can help you learn how to remain decisive and rational in the midst of emotional upheaval.

-Reading about Sartre can help you recognize that we limit our own freedom because we’re afraid of being responsible for it; that insight can allow you to consider options you didn’t think you had.

-Learning the Buddhist approach to suffering can give you a way of responding to adversity, when otherwise it would have seemed like a roadblock, as well as help you live more consistently in the present moment.

-Schopenhauer can help you recognize that we have unrealistic expectations of what romantic love can do for us, helping us to be more forgiving, more independent partners.

Much of it boils down to “What should we do about X?” where X is a serious human issue we all deal with. And they often have very good answers.

Katie March 15, 2015 at 9:30 am

By considering various arguments for and against something, you naturally become less judgemental, more open-minded and more tolerant. You learn to question your own way of thinking and as a result, understand (or try to understand!) why others think the way they do. I think I became a better listener too because of my studies. It has also helped me at times of emotional “blocks” (as David mentioned above with the Buddhist approach) and helped me make decisions in my life. I’m glad I studied it. I wished I’d done a double major at the time though (perhaps to help with the job prospects!) – but I’ve found it very useful – it’s provided me with practical skills I can apply to many areas of my life.

Stephen Raj March 2, 2015 at 6:24 am

Awesome…amazing..perfect. Cant be said better.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:21 am

Thank you sir.

Mrs. Frugalwoods March 2, 2015 at 6:28 am

I think humans are defensive and self-protective by nature, which leads us to judge others so swiftly and harshly. It’s easy to analyze others and identify their shortcomings–much more difficult to turn the lens on ourselves.

The idea of actively improving character is a wonderful one. We make children do it, but the practice often falls off in adulthood.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:22 am

The idea of actively improving character is a wonderful one. We make children do it, but the practice often falls off in adulthood.

That’s true and I think it really says something about our overconfidence. We seem to assume that we more or less get it right once we’re in the workforce and paying our own bills, and so I think many people think they are especially messed up, because we presume everyone else has things figured out. We all need so much help.

Lorrie B March 2, 2015 at 7:04 am

Thanks, David, for putting this so eloquently. We need to recognize and be aware of our own failings, before we can start to work on being wiser and more compassionate. Along with our collective and inappropriate disdain of philosophy, I have friends who tell me “You think too much”, or “It seems like you have too much time on your hands” in reaction to my verbal attempts at analyzing our culture and society. Many people are averse to the simple truth. And that’s OK! Again, we need to acknowledge all these aspects of humanity, and adjust our expectations. When I’m driving around angrily cursing at other drivers, I’ll be thinking of this post.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:26 am

Our disdain for philosophy is really unfortunate. I used to think of it as “the practice of answering obnoxious questions” such as “what does it all mean? Where are we going?” but it’s much more practical than that.

Rose LaLuz March 2, 2015 at 9:56 am

Lorrie, thank you for letting me know I am not the only one being told “you think too much” . This little newsflash generally delivered with a critical but tolerant tone. The presumption being I suppose, that the opposite is preferable and that I can simply stop my little habit if I really try. Hmmm… I think, therefore I am. But I guess I am not being whom they want me to be. If it weren’t for people like David who keep the lights on to show us the way, we would forever wander in the darkness of our own wilderness.

Jamie March 2, 2015 at 7:17 am

Thank you so much for this post. It was, as your posts usually are, very timely.

Minor thing – I think there’s a typo here:
“snap our of our self-interest”


David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:29 am

Thanks, should be fixed.

Dollar Flipper March 2, 2015 at 7:58 am

“The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves.”

The first time I heard this idea was in 7 habits of highly effective people and it blew my mind. One of those light bulb moments. I had a co-worker who just couldn’t get the fact that it’s easier to change your own mindset than to make another person not only change their mindset, but also change the way they do many different things. And there I was trying to change my co-worker too! So many layers.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:31 am

There’s are many similar ideas in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, such as the habit of viewing people as both babies and 100 year old people, and understanding that everyone lives in a separate reality, where something that is clear to you is invisible to them, and vice-versa.

Dragline March 2, 2015 at 8:19 am

In an amusing coincidence, you and the Pope appear to have been collaborating on today’s message:


David Cain March 2, 2015 at 8:31 am

We go way back

jn2 March 2, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Love it :)

Also recommend Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk on the moral matrix. 18 min video + transcript:


rp March 5, 2015 at 4:59 am


michael March 2, 2015 at 9:01 am

awesome post. Shared it with my colleague who needs to change his behavior. :)

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 10:23 am


Kat March 2, 2015 at 9:15 am

Oh yeah, but you forgot to tell everyone the downside of realizing all this. The times you are feeling petty? The days you are looking for someone to blame for just everything? Once you really know that you are being unfair, unbalanced, or just plain mean, you can’t indulge in those emotional tantrums for more than a few minutes before you call yourself out. It’s because of people like you we can’t wallow in our self righteousness… all we have left is the craft beer.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 10:24 am

I find I am still able to have tantrums, but they become more subtle so that I don’t realize it

Celia Kozlowski March 2, 2015 at 9:30 am

Wonderful, as usual! I totally agree about the importance of forgiveness (including of ourselves) and non-judging. But I have slightly different views about what fundamental underlying values are, where they come from, and the roles they may serve–thanks to one phenomenal book: Jonathan Haidt’s *The Righteous Mind.*

I cut my teeth pooh-poohing group selection, but he’s converted me. I have a much better understanding of people with very different politics/morals than mine after reading this (for the second time). And it’s a tour-de-force on the merits, development, and value of philosophers. I resonate to so much of what you write (I often refer to you as “my young guru”) that I can’t help but think you and perhaps some of your like-minded readers will find this as mind-expanding as I did.

Haidt might say the value of broadcasting news of misbehavior is to remind us that society is watching, and our bad behavior will be found out and punished. This, like gossip at the well in ancient days, serves to deter misbehavior among the group. And psychologically they find that you are less likely to cheat if you think you will be found out. (Of course you could say seeing/reading such news all the time gives us the sense that “everyone’s doing it” i.e. it’s the norm … so why not?).

Haidt recognizes that humans are mostly, fundamentally, like our primate ancestors in being just out for ourselves. But he also believes we have evolved morals — via evolution and group selection — to facilitate our working in groups. Groups were (evolutionarily) –and are still today — able to accomplish things that individuals never could… and thus succeed. For this reason we’ve evolved what he calls a “hive switch” that is associated with many of the behaviors and experiences we treasure… our “groupishness,” our highest selves, our experience of awe, self-sacrifice, charity, empathy, connection to a higher cause…

Our moral reactions and behaviors are largely intuitive, emotional, gut-level, instantaneous, Haidt says, but we can ==sometimes== step back, still the charging elephant of our reactions, see where our intuitions are headed, and recognize that others are also grounded in a moral matrix (but with perhaps slightly different scores for different basic values forming their matrix) prompting them to react/behave as they do…

It’s not so much forgiving others for failing to measure up to our values or to some predetermined set of values that a philosopher/religion/politics has decreed to be the universal correct values … but rather appreciating what values people are reflecting in their behavior and considering whether, where, and how, some of the underlying values might actually be for the good of the world–or at least to a group within that world.

I don’t do Haidt justice. It’s a brilliant book. I will LOVE reading what you might have to say about it if you read it. Thanks again, David. You never fail to make my day.

Dragline March 2, 2015 at 10:17 am

Yes, I would second that recommendation — its well worth reading.

For another take on human group dynamics from an historian (as opposed to a psychologist), you’d be well to read Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

One of his principal theses is that it is humans’ ability to believe in abstract ideas or narratives as real things (everything from corporations and money to religion, nations and human rights) is what allows them to function cooperatively in large groups. Adherence to a set of morals is an example that dovetails with what Haidt discusses.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Sounds great. All of what you said makes sense to me. Given that I don’t believe in divine morality I don’t know what our moral impulse could be about if not some kind of social benefit. But it’s possible we’re intelligent enough to see possibilities beyond what might be evolutionarily helpful, possibilities that serve our quality of life even if they don’t confer a reproductive advantage.

Anyway, I’m excited to read it.

rp March 5, 2015 at 5:15 am

I’ve noted to look at the book too, thanks sounds interesting.

I’m unsure about the generalisations about other animals though, in the discussion postings so far. There are so many social creatures, like elephants and whales and I’m no ecologist but I’m thinking some apes too…

Do you think that perhaps this categorical ‘gulf’ we create between ‘humans and other animals’ might actually be much less so, and that there is a huge diversity in the animal kingdom of which we’re part of…

I wonder how the many indigenous peoples see it, as I listened to an Australian indigenous man say recently “we are the flora and fauna”. Interesting…

Even if we have greater intellect, I’m not sure how it can be said that animals are ‘amoral’, if it means considering others and having empathy etc… I think other animals have these capacities…

For further thought anyway.

David March 2, 2015 at 10:11 am

Great article yet again, David!
“That we recognize how hard it is for human beings to be what they aspire to be.”
I loved this line, as when I read it, the pressure I put on myself to be “perfect” dissipated (ever so slightly :-)). I find when I cut myself a little slack I am more apt to do so for others.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:16 pm

There is definitely a HUGE relationship between how harshly we judge others and how we judge ourselves. We are better able to accept ourselves if we can accept others. If we can’t accept the flaws of others, we quickly find ourselves unbearable.

kate March 5, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Isn’t THAT the truth !!!! If we could all just RELAX. lol

Grant March 2, 2015 at 10:57 am

I think this discussion must consider some important parts of the human rationalization process: moral relativity and illusory superiority. You speak in this article of absolute morality, however human interactions are relative to each other. Humans often justify poor behavior by comparing to others. This is especially true for children, who are using others as role models, and seeking any excuse to avoid punishment. Humans also seem to be wired to think highly of themselves in comparison to other people. Interestingly, it seems to require higher than average intelligence to understand and avoid this fallacy. These of course are not true justifications in the absolute sense, but they allow people to have comfort in their denial.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:20 pm

I don’t think intelligence is the limiting factor in whether we live with this understanding or not. It’s not hard to see the pattern: we are constantly failing to live up to the standards we have for others (and to a slightly lesser extent) ourselves. This isn’t hard to grasp once it’s pointed out, and it’s certainly possible to be exceptionally intelligent and miss it entirely.

Craig March 2, 2015 at 11:08 am

Another great post David, but this one is particularly good. I personally emailed three people in my family to share it with them. Thanks.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Thanks so much for sharing it, Craig. I hope they like it.

Artur Souza March 2, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Very good article! Have you already thought have your writings translated to portuguese? Many people here in Brasil would agree with your thoughts if they could read you write.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:22 pm

Some of them have been already. I have a fairly big Brazilian fan contingent. I’m really not sure what to do with translation though. I can never account for its quality and how it is distributed — I can’t even recognize my own work when it is translated. So I kind of lose control of it. But I’m going to think about what to do about that.

Imaginary Friend March 2, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Dear David,

I recently stumbled upon your blog and fell in love and I’m in the process of reading through your list of favourite books! ^_^

For some reason I find this article a little grim and hopeless. You know? I feel the opposite about humanity! I think us humans are pretty awesome at a lot of things that are important.

Maybe our actions don’t benefit as many people as they should. But when I see people fighting to create work that’s meaningful, or making art that makes others feel less alone, or protecting those they love, my heart aches, I think it’s so beautiful…

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:25 pm

De Botton discusses this a lot in the book I mentioned. Pessimism seems like a bad thing, when it can actually be quite liberating. If we’re too optimistic about human capability, then we live in a state of constant disappointment with our species. On the occasions we live up to our optimistic standards, we think, “Well it’s about time!” instead of “How beautiful that we’re able to be virtuous sometimes!” If we’re pessimistic, in the measured sense I present here, I think it’s easier to live in a state of gratitude for how far we’ve come and what we’re able to do.

rp March 5, 2015 at 5:24 am

Thank you.

Personally, I’ve felt that it mainly does not make sense for me to be an optimist or a pessimist (at some kind of ‘overall’ level)…

If and when all one need do is turn one’s mind to a selection of things to be an optimist, or a different selection of things to be a pessimist…

If I can choose to emphasise one or other group of things, both of which are going on…

Tracy March 2, 2015 at 1:33 pm

I’m finding it interesting that you have combined these two thoughts in the same sentence: “Religion, after all, is just a subset of philosophy, and we should get help with being human wherever we can find it.” The whole point of religion, at least the Christian one, is that we can be what we ought to be (or more like it, anyway) by accepting supernatural help, the very element that prevents religion from being a mere “subset of philosophy”.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Religion is a lot bigger than the supernatural premises for its ideas. The simple idea that we are flawed and need help (supernatural or otherwise) is a philosophical idea emphasized by Christianity, but it can be worth considering even if you think there’s no such thing as supernatural assistance. Religion for Atheists explores this concept much more deeply — what we could learn from religion if we didn’t disqualify its ideas just because we reject their doctrines about the supernatural.

Of course, there are non-theistic religions, or at least religions whose primary teachings don’t require belief in the supernatural, such as Buddhism. These all fall under the big umbrella of philosophy.

Joan Shaull March 2, 2015 at 1:48 pm

I took my life’s theme song from Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”:

I give myself some very good advice
But I very seldom follow it.
That explains the trouble that I’m always in.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:31 pm

That’s just about perfect, thanks :)

Georgina March 2, 2015 at 1:49 pm

Really insightful article as usual. I read about the “just world fallacy” somewhere but unfortunately did not bookmark it. It is along the same line more or less. This post makes me do a lot if introspection and has been very comforting. I tend, unwisely, to be rather judgmental. Regards and respect.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:34 pm

The Just World Fallacy is really interesting, and I’m starting to see how deeply it’s been impressed into me. I really did grow up believing we get what we deserve (and therefore we deserve what we get.) It’s a huge part of the “American Dream” idea, this idea that successes are self-made, but that also means that people in bad situations presumably deserve to be. It does a lot to explain the wealth disparity and the suspicion of socialism in the US.

E March 2, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Ha! What anthropologists? Precisely because humans are bad at everything important, we humans will be extinct here fairly shortly (due to our own short sightedness). The only anthropologists that could possibly be here in the future would be those from another planet, or those that evolve from scratch on this planet at some point in the very very far future. Chances of either of those happening? slim to none in my view.

David Cain March 2, 2015 at 3:37 pm

One thing today’s historians and anthropologists are reluctant to do is make predictions, because they study the (invariably wrong) predictions past human beings made about their fate. Our days are definitely numbered, but I would bet there’s plenty of future left for anthropologists to discover, study, and laugh at us.

Rich E. March 11, 2015 at 11:40 am

This is an idea that pops up with some regularity for me: what conclusions would these future archaeologists draw from what we have left behind? It’s a humbling thought, isn’t it?

I’m grateful to have discovered your writings. Much nourishing food for thought, and found at just the right moment for me. I need to make some changes, but have often found myself circling withing the limits of my intellect, like an animal in a cage.

Thank you.

David Cain March 13, 2015 at 10:19 am

I really wonder… They will have a much better idea about us because we keep copious records of what we’re doing and thinking. If they’re able to access digital data, they’ll have zillions of hours of video of our society. But it would be interesting to know what they misinterpret or misunderstand about us.

George H March 5, 2015 at 4:15 pm

There’s still hope.

As David stated in his article, humankind is in a transitional phase. Morality is a skill which can be learned, and there are millions of individuals (such as David himself) who commit to the idea of “Getting Better at Being Human”.

Of-course nobody is perfect. But our species doesn’t need to achieve perfection (or near-perfection) in order to survive. After all, buying ourselves a beer or inconsiderate parking aren’t going to destroy humanity.

So the question is: Will we, as a species, advance far enough quickly enough, to save ourselves? I don’t know. I think the odds are close to 50-50. These odds are nothing to celebrate, but there is no need to fall into desperation, either.

Samuel Mandell March 2, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Ha! Haven’t even read the post yet and I’m already chuckling at the title. I do so enjoy this blog. Keep up the good work David.

David Cain March 3, 2015 at 8:37 am

Thanks Samuel

Josephine March 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm

I loved this article because it points out so much irony. But it made me a little sad and I had to think of the self-enhancement bias, which just means that we see ourselves as better than we actually are. It is basically our brain protecting us from becoming depressed, I think if we saw ourselves realistically and also felt responsible for ourselves we almost couldn’t handle all of our shortcomings. I think I’m kind of missing this self-enhancement bias because I feel aweful about a lot of my behaviour that I’m struggling to change. You can read about it in “You are now less dumb”, it explains the phenomen of judging others by another standerd very well.

David Cain March 3, 2015 at 8:41 am

That is a big philosophical question that comes in many forms: “If we knew and acknowledged the truth about X, would be be able to handle it?” Some people argue that we can’t even except some very basic realities about ourselves, such as that we will die, and that we will never solve all of our problems in the mean time. Who knows how much self-deception we engage in to keep the whole machine running smoothly.

The Junto Times March 3, 2015 at 7:13 am

Hi David

Interesting how when someone has done something we don’t agree with, we generally instantly condemn them rather than try to understand them due to our availiability heuristic. It’s far harder to try to understand people, and takes a lot longer.

An interesting book in a similar vein you may like is called ‘Philosophy and the Social Problem’ by Will Durant. You can get it for free from Project Gutenburg.


David Cain March 3, 2015 at 8:42 am

Thanks, I will check it out. Project Gutenburg is awesome.

Simon Somlai March 3, 2015 at 12:17 pm

We’re still animals at our core. What we experience is a clash between our instincts and our intellect. This results in many modern problems, not only the fact that morality comes difficult to us.

Stumbled upon a great quote that made me think yesterday;

“Our brains are battlefields between our nature and our nurture”.

Our brains are in many ways un-adapted to the times we live in.

Vilx- March 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm

This touches a subject I’ve pondered over for a while, without really getting any satisfactory answers.

The question is – when is it OK to blame other people, and when is it not?

On one hand, we are just the product of our genetics (not under our own control) and environment (also not under our own control, at least during the developing years). As such, there isn’t much left that can be blamed. Is there any really free will at all? If you had the same background and brain makeup as the other person, wouldn’t you make the same mistakes? It kinda feels that we shouldn’t really blame anyone for anything anymore. That also seems quite “wise”, like what some aged Buddhist monk on a mountaintop would do. :)

On the other hand, a little more than a year ago there was a great calamity in my country (actually, it happened just a few km from where I lived). During an evening shopping rush, a supermarket collapsed. 54 people died, and more were injured. The news even made it to international reporters like BBC, and around here it was a national tragedy.

Inquiry in the whole thing revealed several gross problems. The supporting structure was wrongly built by cheap inexpensive workers, the loads were incorrectly calculated, there was a garden construction happening on the roof and rain (many additional tons of water+soil). The icing on the cake was the fact that the fire alarm in the store had been going off all week for an unknown reason (in retrospect, it was dust from the crumbling constructions), but the employees at the store just kept resetting it.

With so many blatant cases of neglect, it’s hard no to blame anyone. And anyone who I’ve ever talked to have said, that the guilty people should be found and properly punished.

In similar vein, there are also many common criminals (thieves, rapists, murderers, etc) who are clearly doing something “wrong” and should be punished… I guess.

But where then is the border between “shouldn’t blame” and “should blame”? What is the criteria to put cases in one or the other camp? This I’m still struggling to understand.

neal March 3, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Maybe being placeholders for the dead, and the yet to happen, is what some get. The other stuff smells like victory, war, and such. Hell of a job.

Probably OK when that is just in the head, and not the family curse.

All in the pool, and such. Of course misfits and mutants are busy. This town has been left to desert creatures. Hard to not stare at this.

To create and stay innocent is still a constant. Otherwise, that conversation would have never happened.

Jean "Pebbles" Goodrich March 4, 2015 at 2:50 am

Great timing as ever, David. I currently am surrounded by people who keep banging on about respect, integrity & honour, & seem to spend every waking minute brewing up evil for each other. These are quite senior people who I am supposed to look up to. Your words, as always, lift me out of the gloom into light, thank you.

Jayme March 6, 2015 at 11:19 am

This is fantastic. Do you identify with the concepts of Stoicism? From this, it would seem you completely do (the inclination for studying and improving self, quest for virtue, acceptance, etc.), but I am curious to know your thoughts on it.

Garrett March 8, 2015 at 1:08 pm

Morality, of course, preceded religion and it will continue post-religion.

Tony March 8, 2015 at 11:27 pm

Hey, David,

Writing just to say that your article is wonderful. It addresses issues I have troubles working upon, and thus, is also very helpful to me. Thank you for the work you’re doing with Raptitude: it is a source of knowledge and wisdom. Is there any way I can help with improving Raptitude further?

With best regards,


David Cain March 13, 2015 at 10:19 am

Thanks Tony. The best thing you can do is just share the pieces you like, on Facebook or Twitter or by email.

danna March 12, 2015 at 11:53 am

Hey,Dave,could you please answer the question of Tony,posted on 8 of March?I’m just curious what your answer would be.

lukovski zdravko March 18, 2015 at 8:27 am

Ingenious! The entire philosophy summed up into 2 very simple but powerful steps. In simpler terms – First become aware of the problem by accepting it and recognizing it entirely and Second step into action and work on it. And yes, we have to take it seriously, otherwise we’d be just fooling and playing with ourselves.

Very good article and truly inspiring I must admit!

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