I generally agree with what Harris said in The Moral Landscape. I thought a lot of the bad press he got over it wasn’t deserved simply because his book was largely a set of thought experiments; interesting as academic pursuits. As far as applying them to the real world goes not much was given. It’s defensible that what’s moral is an empirical, and therefor scientific, question, but what tools does that give us in the real world? I don’t know. 

So it’s interesting to look at how Harris himself approaches real-world issues just to see how it links back to his book. I’m not really sure how it does and what he has said gives the impression that if his position is based on his moral theorising it has left him unable to see an invasion as an invasion. In this blog post he starts out by arguing something like “in wars all bets are off, people do bad shit”. Maybe, but applying that to what’s happening in Gaza is extra-ordinarily misleading. He made this point in response to Israel’s record of war crimes. The vast detail he doesn’t mention is that all the terrorism and crimes against Israel that are given as pretexts to murder are the result of it’s invasion, blockade and siege of Palestine. Even the existence of Hamas itself is arguably the result of Israel’s war crimes. According to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal a war of aggression “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” 

You have to ask yourself, given Harris’ recent history as a champion of reason: what is the reasonable response to terrorism? Is it murdering people who had nothing to do with it? If there is a way to stop it without killing people should that be the first option open to a reasonable mind? International law is clear on this. Another detail Harris ignores. Israel has the right to defend itself and everyone with any understanding of terrorism or security or the situation in Palestine understands exactly how Israel can stop all the terrorism right now: call off their invasion, blockades and sieges and go home inside Israel’s borders. They accidentally did this already. Hamas agreed to a cease-fire, which Israel totally violated by implementing blockades, another war crime, during which Hamas completely stopped rocket fire into Israel. So they could just do that, forever this time. Even if Israel was justified in using aggression, which it’s not, it would still be guilty of breaching the Geneva Convention, which explicitly forbids transfer of population into occupied land. You have to understand that war is declared against states, not people or land. The threat is the state and once the state is pacified the threat is gone. Even declaring war doesn’t give a state de facto right to take any region over.

Harris’ entire thesis in The Moral Landscape is that morality comes down to suffering versus well-being. With that in mind read the following:

Consider how we behaved in World War II: We did things that would now constitute the worst war crimes imaginable—the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We literally burned hundreds of thousands of noncombatants alive. Was all that carnage strategically necessary? I don’t know—probably not. And we certainly couldn’t behave this way today without invoking the wrath of billions of people. However, the crucial question is, what sort of world were we trying to create? What were the real intentions of the U.S. and Britain with respect to Germany and Japan? Well, you saw our intentions after the war: We helped rebuild these countries. Out of the ashes of this war, we created the allies we deserved. The truth is that we wanted to live in a peaceful world with thriving economies on all sides.

He seems to have stopped slightly short of saying burning people to death is OK so long as you have a nice idea in mind, OK so long as we “create the allies we deserved.” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t mean that. Even to argue that intention is the crucial question seems to be a total deviation from his moral theoretics. It’s not the issue of killing people nor the issue of whether any of it was strategically necessary that’s central, we should look away from that, it’s the issue of intention that is crucial. 

So let’s talk about intentions. The current escalation in Gaza started with the abduction of some teenagers from Israel. Actually, not exactly… they were abducted form the occupied West Bank, not Israel. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and ordered a search in Gaza. Israeli soldiers started arresting people in Gaza, something like 800, no-one has since mentioned this, the biggest kidnapping ring in history. Not surprisingly this investigation pissed people off. You can imagine what would happen if foreign soldiers showed up in New York and arrested 800 people. Shortly after it was discovered that he knew that they were dead before starting the investigation. It was then revealed that his own people thought that the culprits probably weren’t receiving orders from Hamas; which was later confirmed. People get kidnapped and murdered all the time, do countries usually go to war over it? Why does Harris, a self defined supporter of reason, have nothing to say about such unreasonable behaviour? And if we are supposed to be interested in intentions: what are the intentions powering Israel’s actions? It seems murderous irrational belligerence. 


When talking about money, and more specifically about why we use certain things as money, the idea of legal tender often comes up. We all tend to use pieces of worthless metal, paper or cloth, or even entries in electronic databases as money worth far more than the things themselves. An intuitive explanation for this, and one I would have gone with in the past, is that it has something to do with the government designating certain things legal tender. I think people often have the idea that we all get payed in pounds because “pounds are legal tender.”

So I decided to find out what this phrase, legal tender, actually means. As it turns out it doesn’t mean very much and it has little baring in why we use and accept pounds.

In using the idea of legal tender in a country’s legal system authors of the legal system have to do the following:

1) Define what “legal tender” means

2) Establish which things are legal tender

3) Define how much those things are worth in the sovereign currency

The phrase “legal tender” is just that, a phrase. Any group of people can establish a legal framework that uses the phrase “legal tender” and then define it to mean whatever they want. Generally, however, it’s pragmatic to use the term to refer to the same basic idea. Usually “legal tender” means: “A thing that can never be refused as settlement of a debt in court”. Because “debt” is a legally defined concept debts are denominated in the legal system’s chosen currency, so by entering the court system you have established that the debt is measurable in that currency. So, if you are in court in the UK it is implicit that the debts being settled are measured in pounds. Things that are considered legal tender (according to 3) will also have a legally defined value in that currency.

You should also realise that this only refers to coins and banknotes, i.e. things, not pounds. You can have pounds in a bank account, and use those to settle debts in or out of court, that has nothing to do with legal tender because you never used any. Pounds aren’t legal tender, pound coins are. Pounds are what our legal system choses to denominate debts in, and by entering the legal system it seems a person implicitly agrees too that. I guess another way of looking at it is that within our legal system a debt is defined as a thing denominated in pounds. You could, of course, argue that there are other forms of debt, but you can’t usually take someone to court for owing you gratitude or a hug, and if you did it would map onto a case of damages or compensation in which the court would decide on a currency value, again, in pounds.

Putting this in an example: You are taken to court for not paying a debt of £100. The court demands you pay the debt. You pay by cheque. This has nothing to do with legal tender laws. You have payed a debt denominated in pounds in pounds. No things were exchanged. The banks just moved some numbers around in their accounts (and perhaps moved reserves between banks). Had you chosen to pay the debt with 100 pound coins, the court would have to accept that as payment as would the person to whom you owe the money. The debt would be settled. If the creditor agreed to accept payment in hugs, and you provided them, the case would be settled; no tender laws invoked.

In reality things are made complicated by there being many types of things that are legal tender, so the tender laws usually look more like this:

1) Define what “legal tender” means

2) Establish which things are legal tender for specific sized transactions.

A is legal tender for debts not exceeding x. B is legal tender for debts not exceeding y. C is legal tender for debts of any amount.

3) Define how much those things are worth in the sovereign currency

For example: In the UK 5p coins are only legal tender for debts not exceeding £5, while pound coins are legal tender for any amount.

Now, here’s the important point: None of this requires you to actually use legal tender. It just means that, in court, you can always use it to settle. Obviously, as mentioned, legal systems can define whatever rules they want, but we can look at actual examples of tender laws:


From the Royal Mint’s website:

Legal tender has a very narrow and technical meaning in the settlement of debts. It means that a debtor cannot successfully be sued for non-payment if he pays into court in legal tender. It does not mean that any ordinary transaction has to take place in legal tender or only within the amount denominated by the legislation. Both parties are free to agree to accept any form of payment whether legal tender or otherwise according to their wishes. In order to comply with the very strict rules governing an actual legal tender it is necessary, for example, actually to offer the exact amount due because no change can be demanded.


From the US Treasury FAQ:

This statute [Coinage Act of 1965, Section 31 U.S.C. 5103] means that all United States money as identified above are a valid and legal offer of payment for debts when tendered to a creditor. There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as for payment for goods and/or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise. 


For the Reserve Bank of Australia FAQ:

However although transactions are to be in Australian currency unless otherwise agreed or specified, and Australian currency has legal tender status, Australian banknotes and coins do not necessarily have to be used in transactions and refusal to accept payment in legal tender banknotes and coins is not unlawful.


From the Bank of Canada‘s website:

“Legal tender” refers to the money approved for paying debts. […] This does not force anyone to accept cash because both parties must agree on the payment method. The fact that bank notes are legal tender does not mean that there is a legal obligation to accept them.


From the Bank of Japan‘s website:

Banknotes are a widely used payment instrument, especially for small-sized payments. The Law stipulates that banknotes shall be used for payment as legal tender, in other words, they are a legally defined payment instrument that should not be refused by any creditor in satisfaction of any debt.

If you open a shop in any of the above countries you can refuse business to anyone you want. The only grounds people have to complain is perhaps human rights (for example on the grounds of discrimination or something). You could simply refuse to accept payment in the sovereign currency. No transaction means no debt, no debt means that the tender laws are irrelevant. If I agree to ‘sell’ you a car, and we agree that you will ‘pay’ for it in gold, so long as the transaction happens as agreed then there is no debt, no basis for legal action and so tender laws just don’t apply.

Imagine for a second that the government wanted to use tender laws to make everyone use pounds, how exactly would they do that? If you and I swap a pencil for a pen, that is a transaction… would we have breached tender laws? What about payment-in-kind? Some people are payed less in salary because they get perks, those are non-legal-tender transactions, right? The point is it’s incomprehensible to think that the government could mandate use of sovereign currency because it’s not clear what transactions that would apply to and policing it would be impossible. Which probably is why they don’t.

In summary, when it comes to why people use pounds or dollars or yen, tender laws don’t give us much insight. You could argue they have increased usefulness because you can always use pounds to resolve debts in a legal setting… but that has nothing to do with tender laws, that’s simply the result of the particular legal system choosing what it defines debt to mean and how it is measured.

What about taxes?

Someone might argue that we have no choice but pay our tax bills in pounds. They might imagine it would be better if the government accepted gold or bitcoins or anything as payment of tax… the thing is, they kind of already do accept payment of tax in things other than legal tender. How? Public spending. The pounds you use to pay your taxes were issued by the government when it spent them into existence. It spent them by buying something, which was sold by someone in the private sector (or possibly by someone abroad). So you can sell products or services to the public sector, gain pounds, and then use those pounds to pay taxes. We all do this as a group all of the time. It’s just done at a macroscopic level. The government accepting X in payment of tax is financially exactly the same as the government buying X with pounds. In fact, this is literally the basis of our money system, it’s how all pounds come to be. The only reason the government doesn’t buy bitcoins is that they’re useless and there is no reason to.