My Atheistic Moral Philosophy; Objective, Subjective and Theistic Morality

My Atheistic Moral Philosophy; Objective, Subjective and Theistic Morality September 22, 2018

As promised, here, finally, is a hopefully succinct synopsis (ha, er, impossible) of my moral philosophy. In setting it out, I will also counter positions adopted and claimed by theistic thinkers and apologists (am I implying apologists aren’t thinkers?).

Let’s set out the basics. What is morality? Generally, the study of morality is split into three components: descriptive morality, meta-ethics and normative morality. Normally philosophers replace the term ‘morality’ with ‘ethics’. Descriptive ethics is concerned with what people empirically believe, morally speaking. Normative ethics (which can be called prescriptive ethics) investigates questions of what people should believe. Meta-ethics is more philosophical still in attempting to define what moral theories and ethical terms actually refer to. Or,

What do different cultures actually think is right? (descriptive)

How should people act, morally speaking? (normative)

What do right and ought actually mean? (meta-ethics)

Morality, as the term will be used here, will generally be understood as: “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.”[i]

Abstract Ideas

Morality is an abstract idea, so surely we would need to know what an abstract idea is and what its ontology (principles of existence) is? As many of you know, I am a conceptual nominalist.

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist… Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time…. However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.’” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here. As is the SEP entry on abstract objects – here. As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here. Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

End result? Realism is, in my opinion, untenable and (conceptual) nominalism is not only a more coherent argument, it is also borne out by actual data and the world around us. The fact that no moral philosophy works perfectly,, the fact that we all believe slightly different things of morality, shows that there is, descriptively, subjectivity concerning moral philosophy.

Objective Morality

We apply the abstract labels of moral evaluation to actions and intentions of humans. Actions are themselves events with real, physical properties. Intentions are different to actions in that they are states of minds. Of course, with the position that the mental supervenes on the physical (as I claim), then there is a sense that such mental states of intentions are themselves reducible to physical properties.

When we talk about “morality” as a whole, we talk about the moral laws and prescriptions, and the truth values of a moral proposition. For me, there is no ether or locus for morality outside of our brains where such ideas can exist in an ontic sense. In this way, morality is a conceptual enterprise that is constructed by our brains to create a moral map of the world that we can use to navigate the social landscape.

We can use science to help us, as Sam Harris does, arrive at the best course of action, given a particular goal. But, I think, setting out that goal is a philosophical project and that requires some abstract thought, perhaps setting out axioms in one’s framework. You can argue that there is an objectively better course of action given two options, A and B. If you are looking for wellbeing or happiness (for example), as your endgame for morality, then perhaps option B empirically gets you more of those things. However, setting that as your endgame is not an objective ideal. It is a subjective, conceptual ideal. I would add that for morality to make any coherent sense, for me at any rate, it needs to be goal-oriented, and setting those goals is a subjective project.

I struggle to be able to make sense of “objective” abstracta as mind-independent “things”, since all conceptual entities must, to my mind, be mind-dependent; they are things of the mind.

Simply put, if there were no minds to conceive of morality, there would be no morality.

What do the Experts Believe?

Love it or hate it, if we are going to discuss ideas of morality and moral philosophy, then we must defer to the experts to some degree. Not, of course, in a fallacious manner of appealing to authority or, indeed, an argumentum ad populum. It is sheer folly to ignore the views of the people who spend their lives investigating moral ideas. I would not build a nuclear power station without having a few chats to well-qualified particle and nuclear physicists, while at the same time bending the ears of some proven structural engineers.

So what do philosophers think? Luckily, in 2009, the biggest ever survey of professional and graduate philosophers took place—the philpapers survey. In this survey we learned some important things. 27.7% of philosophers are moral anti-realists. What this means is that only roughly a quarter of philosophers deny the objective truth value of moral statements. Further to this, some 25.9% of philosophers accept or lean toward moral deontology, 23.6% moral consequentialism, and 18.2% virtue ethics. Now we are getting into the pertinent detail. These are the three main contenders for moral theory, split roughly equally, with a healthy “other” (isn’t there always!).

What we can learn from this is that there is a variety of different moral theories that one can adopt, including the denial of moral theories. But the important result is as follows: 72.8% of philosophers are atheists; 14.6% being theists. A huge majority of philosophers deny the existence of a god of any kind. And yet we have just learned that some 67.7% believe in deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics. So, clearly, many philosophers believe that you do not need to believe in a god to coherently hold a moral philosophical worldview.

What Is an Ought?

So, what is an ought? Well, oughts should be seen in their larger context. All too often, we use language sloppily in a way that we take linguistic shortcuts. For example, if I say “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” then most people understand what I mean by implication and inference. This this is actually an apodosis, the part of a conditional sentence that usually starts with then. The problem is, we are missing the protasis, which is the first part of the conditional sentence that usually starts with an if. This is because we are clever enough to make the correct inference and work out what the speaker is meaning.

However, if we were being specific and accurate, we would include the protasis. In this case, the protasis would be “If I want my car engine to work well, then I ought to change the oil in my car engine.” Without the protasis, the sentence “I ought to change the oil in my car engine” is essentially meaningless. This is because you can place anything as the protasis and completely change the overall meaning of the sentence or, indeed, render the apodosis incorrect. In this case, if I said “If, as a scientist, I am testing how well engines work without oil in them” then adding the apodosis, “then I ought to change the oil in the car engine” will not make sense, and the whole sentence is problematic.

Thus the point to make here is that, although we often do it and can make sense of it, if we are to be precise, then we should always include the protasis in a conditional statement.

What religionists do is claim that atheists are not able to ground the moral oughts in a sentence. But oughts are goal-oriented and the goal is contained in a viable protasis. Let’s now turn the tables and see how this works with the theist. The theist states, “You ought to do X” where I will translate this into a generic statement that reads “You ought to be good.” The theist then claims that they have more philosophical right to say this than the atheist. But if I was to ask, simply, “Why?” to the theist, then we start to see how problems can arise. The theist is in danger, without a viable protasis, of merely asserting oughts in a vacuum, that you must be good…in order to be good. This is rather circular and tells us nothing. You ought to change the oil in the engine in order to change the oil in the engine. So, as it stands, the theist has no coherent grounding for their own moral obligations.

On further inspection, the other choices are twofold:

a) in order to get into heaven and avoid hell

b) because God told you so.

The first one looks rather consequentialist in nature and is very self-serving, though I suspect this is the reasoning that underpins a lot of religious thinking. On the other hand, because God told you so faces all the many problems that Divine Command Theories face (I list 16 of them here). Essentially, the only reason to do what God says is to be good, without any recourse to moral reasoning so that morality is at best arbitrary and a-rational and is simply the behaviour, essence or nature of God (as claimed).

All Moral Value Systems Are the Same

Richard Carrier wrote an essay that concluded that all moral value systems are the same, anyway. In “Open Letter to Academic Philosophy: All Your Moral Theories Are the Same“, he shows how deontology reduces down to consequentialism:

Kant argued that the only reason to obey his categorical imperatives is that doing so will bring us a greater sense of self-worth, that in fact we should “hold ourselves bound by certain laws in order to find solely in our own person a worth” that compensates us for every loss incurred by obeying, for “there is no one, not even the most hardened scoundrel who does not wish that he too might be a man of like spirit,” yet only through the moral life can he gain that “greater inner worth of his own person.” Thus Kant claimed a strong sense of self-worth is not possible for the immoral person, but a matter of course for the moral one, and yet everyone wants such a thing (more even than anything else), therefore everyone has sufficient reason to be moral. He never noticed that he had thereby reduced his entire system of categorical imperatives to a single hypothetical imperative.

He then claims that consequentialism reduces to deontology:

Besides these, there are many other respects in which a full-fledged consequentialism actually ends up entailing every preferable conclusion of any deontological ethical system. Duties are morally compelling because of the wide social consequences of not obeying them. Consequentialism thus collapses to deontology, in respect to anything deontology ever had to offer. Philosophers ought therefore to be analyzing every deontological conclusion they think is sound so as to expose what consequences actually make it morally preferable to what any incompleteconsequentialism seems to entail. Notably, some philosophers have been doing this without even knowing it: it’s called rule utilitarianism. But overall, instead of just saying some deontology entails you do x, do the hard work of asking yourself why you really think doing x is consequentially better. Because really, you do. And it is doing philosophy no service to ignore the consequences you are preferring and why.

Before finally claiming they both reduce to virtue ethics, anyway.

Welcome to the quagmire of moral philosophy.

God, Divine Command Theory and Objective Morality

As Kant would say, we cannot know things in themselves. We use our subjective minds to access everything. If God did embody moral law in some meaningful way, then we have a whole series of issues. God embodies, in his nature and commands, moral prescriptive law, and we must then do what he says in order to be moral ourselves.

Indeed, we get onto critiquing divine moral philosophy. The most common version of this is divine command theory (DCT). I shall list 16 arguments against such in order to put it to bed. The Christian/DCTer would need to successfully refute all 16 points to allow their position to be coherent:

  1. Arbitrariness – There is no third party benchmark and so the idea of goodness becomes arbitrary if it is a non-rational assumption made of God. You cannot defer to something else to morally rationalise God’s nature, as this would then become the moral grounding, and this would not necessitate God. But for God to be that grounding, what makes his commands good become merely arbitrary assertions when lacking such rationalisations. Good becomes merely a synonym of God and lacks any useful meaning.
  2. Direction of causality – The direction of causality works like this: God has lovingness, mercy, kindness etc., but these are not good characteristics, because goodness is rooted in God. These are good BECAUSE God has them. They do not make God good. So if we have lovingness, if we ask why it is good, it is because it reflects God, not for any other reason. Justice and lovingness are only good on account of God having them, not because they obtain any good consequences within or for society, of for any other moral reasoning.
  3. We are good only because we reflect God – Think about the previous point on a practical, everyday basis. When you are being good, you cannot use moral reasoning to define that goodness, only that it reflects God. In other words, moral reasoning cannot ground morality, because then the grounding would not be in God. This leaves us with a weird scenario such that you cannot provide any reasoning for moral actions. “Why is this behaviour good?” cannot be answered in any way other than “because it reflects God’s nature”, and thus moral reasoning becomes impotent. It also means that God cannot have reasons for doing as he does, otherwise these will ground the moral value of the action!
  4. Defies everyday moral reasoning and intuition (in, say, consequences) – In other words, what makes rape wrong, for us, is roughly what harm it causes. For the DCTer, it is because God commanded us not to rape. Although, he kind of did in the Old Testament! We will look about the world and say, “Look how horrible rape is! Look at the harm it does.” But this in no way makes it wrong! This carries no moral value. Of course, this seems patently ridiculous. None of this plays well with our sense of moral intuition. We feel we are being good for X and Y reason, and yet this is supposed to be reflective of God, and this is what makes it good. Yet most everybody being good on a daily basis believes this or thinks of God in this way when being good.
  5.  Which God? Which Commands?  – We are also unclear as to which god exists, and what each god’s commands are. The commands in the Old Testament appear to have been replaced overnight with the commands of the New Testament. Incidentally, this looks like moral relativism (Inter-Testamental Moral Relativism) such that the historical and geographic context of the Jews defined the morality of their actions. So there is a gross lack of clarity in what actions DO reflect God’s nature – we might call this the Argument From Divine Miscommunication. Is stoning adulterers good? Is it bad? Is it only good before 33CE? Did God’s nature change then? Is all the Bible literally true? If so, then Jesus is literally a door. If not, then Jesus and the Bible talks at times in metaphor. What is metaphor and what is literal? We do not have commands for a good many things in the Bible, what of these? Such divine commands are indeed muddled and unclear at best. Slavery etc. appears to be morally bad, and yet God countenanced it in the Bible.
  6. Genocide and ordinary morality  The idea that God commanded genocide in the Old Testament is also problematic and does not fit well with ordinary morality. But given DCT, it must be morally good. This potentially gets you to an uncomfortable reality: DCT just depends on who tells you stuff. Genocide from God = good. Genocide from Hitler = bad! It all starts looking like the context (moral relativism, even) and the consequences are all important. More on this later. Hitler gets a lot of bad press for his terrible genocide. God less so. The scales are skewed, methinks.
  7. Is God a better stopping point?  – Theists have done nothing to show that God is a more appropriate stopping point than the moral properties of kindness, generosity and justice themselves. Why is it, in any rational sense, that grounding morality in God is actually any better than grounding it in real and observable features of the world, such as the consequences that such moral actions obtain? There seems to be this assumption that a framework set outside of our minds and our reality, dictated to by some reasoning or being that we cannot access or remotely understand, is somehow better.
  8. Why follow the commands? – Why should we follow such commands? Only to get into heaven and avoid hell? If so, that is not really a reason to be good. If it is because they are good things to do based on moral reasoning, then again, the framework fails. In this way, there is no reason to accept DCT, even if it is true! See the piece “Heaven & Hell Stop You From Genuinely Morally Evaluating“.
  9. Things not commanded are on limits? – Anything not commanded by God is potentially on limits. Since we cannot access the source directly (God), then we end up having to guess what is good or bad. This is a guess because it cannot be based on moral reasoning! So anything not covered by divine commands in the Bible is on limits as being potentially morally fine. Those actions lacking moral clarity leave us with either having to do moral reasoning, or simply not having a moral clue about what actions we should do in order to be reflective of God. This is even harder when it appears some things are both good and bad, depending on the context!
  10. But God would never command rape! Apart from he did. – The defence that God would never command bad things like murder and rape (i.e., that it is not in his nature) is falsified by the very fact that he DID command it in the Bible! Including the death of all men, women, children and animals in different contexts. Some examples: Murder, rape, and pillage at Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:10-24); Murder, rape and pillage of the Midianites (Numbers 31:7-18); More Murder Rape and Pillage (Deuteronomy 20:10-14); Laws of Rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); Death to the Rape Victim (Deuteronomy 22:23-24); David’s Punishment – Polygamy, Rape, Baby Killing, and God’s “Forgiveness” (2 Samuel 12:11-14); Rape of Female Captives (Deuteronomy 21:10-14); Rape and the Spoils of War (Judges 5:30); Sex Slaves (Exodus 21:7-11); God Assists Rape and Plunder (Zechariah 14:1-2). Nice.
  11. But God would never command rape! Er, how can you know?  Again, the defence is common: “But God would never command rape!” Yet, in order to say that God would never command rape, you have to know that rape is already wrong, independent of God! You cannot say he would never command it because he has never not commanded it, and to say that he wouldn’t would involve moral reasoning! We have this problem with causality, and the Christian can’t say “We know he wouldn’t command rape because we know it is bad because of X and Y reasons”. You get seriously hamstrung when you cannot appeal to moral reasoning!
  12. God cannot know he is all-good… – God cannot even know that he himself is all-good because to do so, he would need to judge himself on an objective standard! This is quite a difficult concept to think about, but how would God be able to have the self-reflective knowledge to be able to claim that he was all-good. All God could say was that he was Godlike. Good, being tautologous with God, means that God would work himself into a circle in trying to define himself. It’s quite similar to God being unable to know that he is not a God-in-a-vat, and that there isn’t a chain of gods, Matrix-style, above him.
  13. Moral development of children  In Morality Without God, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong states ((p. 110):
    …anyone who helps and refrains from harming others just because God commanded her to do so might not be hard-hearted, but her motivations are far from ideal. It would be better for them to help and refrain from harming other people out of concern for those other people.
    That is what we ought to teach our children. Studies of development and education show that children develop better moral attitudes as adults if they are raised to empathize rather than to obey commands without any reasons rather than to avoid punishment. To raise children to obey God’s commands just because God commanded them will undermine true caring and true morality.
  14. Non-Christians who have no access to Christianity – People who have not read the Bible or experienced the Christian God would have no idea how to be moral (unless, again, there is an acceptable recourse to moral reasoning, which, again, has no need of God). Think of horrible people existing before biblical times, or in different countries without access to those divine commands. Is murder acceptable because they have not had divine commands?
    Apologists like William Lane Craig have even posited ideas such as that these people God knew would not freely come to love him, or wouldn’t simply be bad people, so he front-loaded their souls into these pre-biblical times as cannon fodder.
  15. Stephen Maitzen: Ordinary Morality Presupposes Atheism – Here is an argument from Stephen Maitzen. And this is an analogy used by Christians themselves. Imagine that you are a five-year-old being taken to the doctors for an injection against a deadly disease. You do not understand how immunisation works. Your parents cannot adequately explain it to you. You just have to know that a greater good will come about from your immunisation. It is a piece of necessary pain and suffering, the needle going in, that will bring about a greater good. Now, an onlooker would never see the doctor just about to inject this poor boy, run over and rugby tackle the doctor so as to stop the pain. That would stop the greater good from taking place. However, that IS what every god-fearing Christian SHOULD do. Let me explain. imagine an old lady being set upon by some youths across the road. Using our ordinary morality, if we saw this, we would like to think we would step in and stop this from happening. But there can be no such thing as gratuitous evil in this world with an all-loving God. This man getting beaten up, as horrible as it is, is necessary for a greater good to come about. By stepping in and helping this woman, we are stopping the greater good from coming about. We would be rugby tackling the doctor to stop those youths! In other words, as Maitzen states, ordinary morality simply does not make sense under theism. Ordinary morality presupposes atheism. Moreover, this whole scenario of the problem of evil and greater goods coming from suffering is consequentialist in nature. God is USING people as a means to an end. This is the sort of utilitarianism that theists decry, and attack atheists for holding to.
  16. God is a consequentialist  And finally… A fundamental problem for Christians is that theologians claim that things like DCT are correct, but actually, most of the population tend to be consequentialists. As William Lane Craig has declared: “consequentialism is a terrible ethic”. However, it turns out that about 90% of people are intuitively consequentialist. The most famous experiment to look into this is the trolley problem. 90% of people would pull the lever. This goes dramatically down if they have to push a fat man off the bridge, which shows that morality is a function of psychology. It turns out that (as Jonathan Haidt would say in “The emotional dog and the rational tail”) that we intuitively moralise and then scrabble around for reasons as to why we did something.But Christians supposedly decry such consequentialism. Funny this, because it turns out that God is the biggest consequentialist of them all. You will hear that God moves in mysterious ways, that there is a reason for everything. The Problem of Evil dictates that there can be no gratuitous evil, that every bit of suffering must be necessary towards eventuating a greater good. So the moral value of the action which brings about suffering is in the consequence of the eventual greater good. It cannot be good that all of the world, bar 8, and all of the animals bar some died in a great flood. No. So the goodness comes from the greater good which this brought about. Everything happens for a reason and God moves in mysterious ways. Jesus being sacrificed was for the sins of the world. This was pure consequentialism. In fact, every atrocity in both the Bible and the real world is explained in this way.But, according to Christians, this ethic is terrible. The ethical system employed by theologians to use in EVERY SINGLE THEODICY is consequentialist, and apparently terrible! See more in my essay here.

That should really close the case on God being the objective basis of morality. See here for problems with another Christian value system, Natural Law.

So what DO I believe?

At an ontological level, I am a moral skeptic. Morality has no ontic existence. Since abstracts do not exist outside of our minds, morality, being abstract, does not exist outside of our minds.

But it does exist in our minds, conceptually, and we pragmatically use our interpretations of morality in order to operate successfully as a social species.

My view, but I am open to change, is that morality is largely psychological. As ephemerol stated here:

…the foundation and core of our intuitive, emotional empathic responses, and I would guess, also of all our basis for cognitive moral reasoning, is the seemingly simplistic understanding that there are things we wouldn’t want others to do to us, and, just maybe, it seems like a reasonable guess that others also wouldn’t like it if we were to do those things to them either.

The funny thing is, although religious people often float the silly idea that a god is somehow involved in morality, the law of reciprocity is an entirely secular and humanistic statement, and depends solely upon the existence, not of gods, nor of religious texts, but just two or more human beings. Nor does it depend upon some unfathomable feat of wisdom such that it could only have come down from on high; it just requires someone to be neurotypical enough to possess the capacity for empathy. In fact, there’s even a fly in this ointment, such as it comes down to us, that indicates that “the golden rule” isn’t quite as wise or as golden as it might at first appear, ruling out some sort of perfectly wise divine source.

Of course, the golden rule predated Jesus by a long way and has turned up in pretty much every society and every religion. It appears to be a fundamental psychological and functional mechanism – indeed, we see it in other animals, too. The platinum rule is an upgrade:

Think about it: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated. The alternative to the Golden Rule is the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

We use our psychological metrics and systems of morality as a good guide – good, because they allow us to operate with social success. This. we interpret as “goodness” (amongst possibly other characteristics).

The reason why consequentialism, as a system, is so intuitively powerful, is that a) it seems to be psychologically ingrained (89% of people would pull the lever in the trolley experiment, and the percentage is reversed if we have to actually push someone to do it) , and b) it is non-derivative.

To ground any claim, from morality to anything else, we have to face the Munchausen Trilemma:

  • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point)
  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof, ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever)
  • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty)

Given the weaknesses of the first two, we are left with the last. Axioms, as self-evident truths, ground the “why” answer with a sort of “just because”. In morality, happiness (pleasure, lack of pain) is a really useful moral currency because it is self-evidently good: Why did you do that? To give optimal happiness? Why? Because happiness is good. Why? It just self-evidently is. It makes me happy. And this is as good an axiom as I think you will find.

Compare that with God as moral command-giver and not being allowed to use moral reasoning, and all you get is do good either because heaven/hell, or do good because God is good, and that is good because God. It’s all rather circular.

Now, consequentialism is not perfect. No moral value system is. After all these thousands of years, we all still disagree, so we can be assured that there simply is no right answer, and this is because it is a conceptual, subjective construction without an objectively “right” manner of being.

Consequentialism is also strong because it seeks to perpetually make the world a better place. It is not about the in-group, about the individual, necessarily – it seeks to make the world a better place. As a general principle, this is pretty noble. It can also be a weakness because it is never-ending and we end up sweeping the streets of micro-organisms in front of us so as to minimise moral impact – we become like the Jains.

It is worth saying that consequentialism has many, many different flavours and add-ons. See the SEP entry on it for more detail. As a rule of thumb, though, I think it is intuitively attractive and pragmatically useful. Indeed, we use it politically all of the time. NICE, the organisation in the NHS, uses outcome based formulae to evaluate drugs and treatments against each other in order to choose the best use of finite money and resources to choose between which drugs and treatments to afford. You can see consequentialism at play in each and every area of policy, both domestic and international.

I am not a fan of deontology – this idea of realism – I do think it is a harder system to arrive at for a naturalist (well, for anyone). Things like the Inquiring Murderer offer problems for establishing any such system that doesn’t seem to actually derive back to a form of consequentialism:

The situation in a nutshell is this: you are cornered outside of your house by a bloodthirsty madman who is looking for your friend. You know that this friend is inside of your house. The madman tells you in no uncertain terms that he will kill this person as soon as he finds him, and demands to know his whereabouts. For some reason or other, you do not have the ability to remain silent but must answer this villain with truth or falsehood. Is a lie in this case morally permissible? (On A Supposed Right to Lie 611).

Kant’s answer, of course, is that not even this horrific circumstance would validate a deliberate falsehood; lying is a priori wrong because it is not an action that can be universally enacted according to the moral law, representing a contradiction in nature. (Source)

I strongly believe that morality is underwritten by or at least heavily entwined with empathy, although the term “empathy” can be a catch-all one that needs closer defining. So, for me, morality is not some simple-to-box-up neat and succinct theory. It is problematic and messy, and it depends whether you are talking about ontology, normative values, logical constructions, truth and axioms.


Objective, divinely-based moral value systems don’t work at all.

Indeed, no moral value system works perfectly – they are all flawed in some way(s).

I think we can make the world a better place by implementing the platinum rule as long as that doesn’t have dire consequential outcomes. It is useful to use consequentialist rules of thumb. We reasonably want to try to make the world a better place for generations to come because it is inherent within us, for genetic reasons, and due to empathy, and psychology that can work itself into predicted futures. It feels good to do so; it feels right; it benefits us and benefits the world universally (if done well).

Now, there is ample opportunity for shed loads of argument here. Do we calculate goodness over a 5, 10, 50, 100-year basis? Is biodiversity morally better than human flourishing? How do we calculate an equilibrium? What is a better world? Can we justify our goals and axioms (when, by definition, axioms cannot be justified as they are supposedly self-evident)?

The whole crux to morality is setting out the goal, the protasis. Once we agree on that, all else follows fairly well. The world is a complex place full of gazillions of variables and this means predicting the future is bloody tough, which means being moral is bloody tough (as in, to calculate). Hence the rules of thumb. We need to teach empathy well and to understand the world better and the consequences that come about from different actions. This will underwrite good, evidence-based (moral) policy-making.

Other Labels

Cognitivism vs Noncognitivism

Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false (they are truth-apt), which noncognitivists deny.[1] Cognitivism is so broad a thesis that it encompasses (among other views) moral realism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about mind-independent facts of the world), moral subjectivism (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions about peoples’ attitudes or opinions), and error theory (which claims that ethical sentences express propositions, but that they are all false, whatever their nature). [source]

I think things can be true or false but that we can never know them to be either (cogito ergo sum). All we know are probabilities, all the way down to axioms. So it depends on how you define these things – it depends on the axioms  and the goals that come out of them, and definitions of truth. I am happy to be called either, as long as the definition accords with my previous sentences. Something can be true, but we could never know the truth value, and it depends on our goals, which themselves may not have truth values (if I want X – is there truth to X being something we would universally want?).

Subjectivism, Etc.

I am not a subjectivist but more of an ideal observer theory adherent: the view that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer (a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative and informed) would have. There is no truth to a subjective claim, where truth is a correspondence type notion of a claim mapping onto objective reality, which is itself tough because there are objective properties, but accessing them is necessarily subjective. In other words, the true colour of something can only be subjective unless describing the simple properties (knowing that language and understanding is itself subjective) of the wavelengths of light.

I am quite partial to modern interpretations of ethical hedonism, which you can read about here. In fact, I would probably advocate living in a Matrix-style utopian experience machine and allow the rest of the biodiverse world to live in balance without too much human intervention. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Phew, that wasn’t succinct.

I’ll return to some more labelling in a future post.


[i] Bernard  Gert. “The Definition of Morality,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. (accessed July 20, 2013)

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