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When People Lose Their Minds, Where Do Their Minds End Up?

Cultism as outsourcing one's conscience to a blank-check virtue brand.

Key points

  • All organisms offload labor onto external sources when they can.
  • Humans can offload the burden of conscience to moral authorities; blank-check virtue brands grant total authority without imposing obligations.
  • Any idea or tradition can become exploited as a blank-check virtue brand in declared holy war against everything evil.
  • Cult followers have outsourced their consciences to a blank-check virtue brand.

Now that we have cell phones, you probably don’t remember phone numbers the way people once did. When we find a reliable external convenience, we tend to offload and outsource to it. Cell phones now remember phone numbers for us.

Biologists find ample evidence that organisms have always outsourced. For example, why do you need to eat fruit when most mammals don’t? Like other mammals, we once produced our own vitamin C. About 35 million years ago, our primate ancestors moved up into trees where they found a reliable source of fruit. We ended up offloading vitamin C production to fruit and our bodies lost the ability to make vitamin C. Now we’re addicted to external sources of vitamin C—even more addicted than we are to our cell phones.

A web of mutual outsourcings

We humans outsource lots. We once had to hunt and grow our own food. Now we outsource to stores and agribusiness. Most of us have lost the ability to hunt and grow our own.

The whole network we call society is a web of mutual outsourcings. We may feel more independent than ever, though not because we are. We’re just addicted to reliable outsourcing. That’s what economies are all about; the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker outsourcing labor to each other.

We hear that society’s mutual outsourcing network is fragile, that supply chains could fail, or that hackers could knock out the internet. “Acts of God” like COVID-19 can make our outsourcing networks fragile but so can acts of humankind. Which kind of acts of humankind? As I’ll explain here, inspired by reading Arthur Koestler, my guess is the outsourcing of conscience to blank-check virtue brands.

Having a conscience takes work. You have to weigh options, wondering what to do. Now, what if you can outsource your conscience, shifting the burden of knowing what to do on to some master conscience outside yourself?

If you join the Marines, you’re freed from doubt about how to live. In the military, “yours is not to wonder why.” Joining is your one decision. Having joined, you’ve offloaded your conscience to a higher power that decides for you what you should do.

Joining the Marines frees you from doubt but it doesn’t free you from obligations. You still have to follow orders—lots of them. That's why it’s more satisfying to outsource your conscience to something that both frees you from doubt about what to do and gave you total freedom to do whatever you want.

And you can.

Blank-check virtue brands

We can offload our consciences to what I’ll call blank-check virtue brands—basically, a name and logo often extracted from some popular religious, spiritual, political, or philosophical movement or ideology.

A blank-check virtue brand is stripped of the obligations imposed by the movement or ideology. It’s just a way to outsource our consciences, branding ourselves as officially on the side of good against evil.

A blank-check virtue brand simply represents everything virtuous locked in a life-or-death battle against some vice-brand that represents everything evil. To take a generic example, “I’m a patriot and anyone who disagrees with me is a traitor.”

It’s a way of declaring ourselves holy warriors. Since all is fair in war, we get all of the moral authority without any of the obligations and restrictions. Blank check virtue brands enable people to offload their consciences to something both unassailably pure and absolutely self-liberating. Just follow your impulses. There’s no deed too dirty for a card-carrying member of a blank-check virtue brand. Everything one does is in the service of the crusade of good against evil.

Those who outsource their consciences to any of the many blank-check virtue brands become permanently shielded against all criticism. If anyone attempts to appeal to their conscience, they can just flash their virtue branding. “I can do no wrong! I’m a card-carrying member of [Virtue brand]. I’m for everything good against everything evil. If you challenge me, you must be a member of [Vice brand].”

Blank-check virtue brands may be the signature of all cults. Psychologists often call cult members true believers, but I doubt that that’s an accurate term. A marine or monk who really tries to live by the Marine code is a true believer.

Self-proclaimed patriots who flash their blank-check virtue brand at anyone who challenges their impulsive behavior are not. They’re dishonest false believers. Instead of having a conscience, they wear the brand, ignore all obligations, and regard themselves as superhuman in their crusade against vice. Why be a true believer when you can be a dishonest false believer?

There are cults and counter-cults. One cult’s blank-check virtue brand is another cult’s vice brand and vice-versa. Communism degenerated into a virtue brand against the vice-brand of Western Imperialism which became a virtue brand against the vice brand of Communism. That happens a lot—virtue-brand-on-virtue-brand battle that distracts from the challenge of keeping society running.

The problem with all ideologies and their sacred or revered texts—all supposed unique and narrow formulas for living the virtuous life—is that history has proven them wide open to interpretation. They readily become blank-check virtue brands used to rationalize all sorts of behavior even though their fans treat them as safe and trustworthy philosophies upon which to offload their consciences.

Blank-check virtue brands are such an alluring outsourcing option that lots of people find them irresistible. In times like these that try our souls and consciences, we can expect to see a rise in such conscience offloading.

That, I’d argue is the primary way by which acts of humankind make society fragile—people outsourcing their consciences onto a blank-check virtue brand, perhaps the one thing we can’t afford to do.


Koestler, Arthur (1982): The Ghost in the Machine. Amsterdam, Netherlands: One 70 Press.