Moral Instincts Don’t Scale

Excellent idea that I never thought of before…

The first half of this bloggingheads video is about Paul Bloom experiments showing how very young babies have a well-developed moral sense. In the second half of the video, Paul & Bob discuss how well our moral instincts and emotions like justice, anger and empathy work in our everyday lives but how badly they scale up to interactions between nations.

They are the waters of March, closing the summer… and the promise of life… in your heart.

My new favourite song is Águas de Março. Pandora found it for me in my “Mas que Nada” playlist where it is sung by four or five different performers so I get to hear lots of different versions. This one – with Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim – is the best version by a mile.

I was surprised to see how upbeat and happy they are in the video (I am watching it for the first time with you) as I had very different interpretation in my head.

When I first heard the song, I took it to be two lovers exchanging sweet nothings across a shared pillow but after hearing it over and over I had to go google the lyrics to find out what it was really about. Wow. That was a shock.

First of all, I had no idea the song was so famous and important. I thought I had discovered a hidden gem and was the only one to enjoy it. How was I to know that I was the very last person in the world to hear it? [OK, OK. The second to last one.I heard it before you did! – Ed] I am very familiar with Antonio Carlos Jobim and love his music but I had never heard of Elis Regina (which made Gilles laugh out loud). I have since made up for lost time and now she’s a favourite too.

Águas de Março - Elis Regina e Tom Jobim
Águas de Março – Elis Regina e Tom Jobim

Secondly, the lyrics… wow. I was way off.

É pau é pedra
É o fim do caminho
É um resto de toco
É um pouco sozinho…

É um caco de vidro
É a vida é o sol
É a noite é a morte
É um laço é o anzol…

É peroba do campo
É o nó da madeira
Caingá, Candeia
É o matita-pereira…

São as águas de março
Fechando o verão
E a promessa de vida
No teu coração…

Wikipedia tells me that Jobim wrote a completely separate set of English lyrics and I don’t know how much they correspond with the Portuguese lyrics [If only we knew someone who speaks Portuguese! – Ed].

It is wood, it is stone
It is the end of the way
It is the rest of a bole
It is a bit in loneliness

It is a shard of glass
It is life, it is sun
It is the night, it is the death
It is the tie , it is the hook …

It is peroba do campo
It is the knob in the wood
Caingá, candeia
It is matita-pereira

They are the waters of March,
closing the summer…
and the promise of life…
in your heart.

Now I know that the song is about the passing of summer (March is at the end of summer in the southern hemisphere) I hear the song as a wistful reminiscence of beautiful ways and a mournful expectation of the winter to come. For me now, it’s a song about loss. Perhaps the loss of youth and the approach of our autumn years. But then I see Tom and Elis having a fine old time on the video and am more confused than when I started. I have no idea what the song is about.

Before I finish, I’d like to say a couple of things about Mas Que Nada, the song that started all this.

Like most of the northern hemisphere, I was introduced to this wonderful song by Ronald and Co’s delightful romp through the airport during the ’98 World Cup.

And reminded of it by Ronaldinho and Friends, Joga Bonito-ing it up eight years later… which brings me to my second point about Mas Que Nada.

Someone needs to stop the Black-Eyed Peas from covering other people’s music. They peaked around Shut Up (which I used to sing as a duet with my then nine year old daughter) and Hey Mama! and everything they have sung since then has the consistency of mushy peas and I’d rather they didn’t turn other people’s great songs into mush.

Acceptable Prejudice

Usual disclaimer: discrimination against atheists is pretty tame compared to the discrimination that blacks and jews and gays have historically faced. It’s not like atheists were ever persecuted or excluded from public office [er, you sure? -ed].


This vialog makes the claim that discrimination against atheists is different from other kinds of discrimination in that prejudice against atheists is still seen as acceptable or even desirable whereas, while there is still an awful lot of discrimination against jews, blacks, gays, moslems, fat people and the disabled, the balance of public opinion has passed a tipping point and polite society will condemn it rather than nodding in agreement.

This, from today’s Guardian, illustrates the point nicely.

Conservative anti-gay prejudice was under scrutiny again on Friday after the Welsh secretary, David Jones, was forced to backtrack on an assertion that gay couples “clearly” cannot provide a “warm and safe environment” in which to raise children.

The important part of the story is not that Jones is a homophobe. It’s that he recognizes that it is unacceptable in 2013 to be a homophobe and that he is obliged to circumscribe his prejudices to try to make them acceptable and to walk back any comments that betray what he really thinks.

He even summons his invisible gay friends to vouch for his good faith.

“I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can’t do.

“Which is not to say that I’m in any sense opposed to stable and committed same-sex partnerships.”

He did not believe he was homophobic, insisting he had “people in my life who are important to me who are gay”.

This is big news. Jones’s real crime is to be about 10 years behind public opinion. Back in 2003 it was obvious to most right-thinking people that the gays couldn’t be trusted to bring up children. Now that everyone knows a gay couple who are doing a fine job as parents, those ancient attitudes seem silly.  By contrast, it’s still acceptable to think that atheists are morally inferior or that we need to protect children from them.

Here’s the vialog.

Unfortunately, as long as atheists remain a disparate group with few interests in common (ie. forever. Ricky Gervais says atheists are like a group of people whose hobby is not-skiing) this state of affairs is likely to continue.

The Least Funny of the Marxes

A series of short lectures on religion from my alma mater.

Stalin and his gang had found lots of other ways to oppress people that didn’t have any of the fun bits of religion. Or, indeed. opium.

Those hilarious people who put ‘Jedi’ on the census form.

Two more in the series. Look out for the heretic mouse torture and God with a hosepipe.