Morality Without Gods

Evolution_MoralsA while back I wrote a series of posts on morality and I want to attempt to tie some things up as well as respond to some common things I see people say online about non-theistic morality (some of which came up in my post on meaning).  I’ve only scratched the surface on this subject so I’m sure some of the details are not quite right.

Different Meta-ethical Views

While it’s much more complicated, in general I like to categorize the different meta-ethical views into the following:

  1. Supernatural Moral Realism (one example is Divine Command Theory): the favorite position for the theist, although I’ve found it interesting that some theists reside in the other 3 categories (mainly the next one) usually in addition to this category.
  2. Non-Natural Moral Realism: some atheist philosophers believe that there are moral properties which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (kind of like the law of non-contradiction). Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Russ Shafer-Landau (video lecture), Michael Martin, and Keith Parsons are just some atheists who have expressed this idea. In this clip atheist Shelly Kagan describes his own views:

    You can see the debate where this clip is taken from here.  I highly recommend this debate to anyone interested in the topic of morality as it relates to atheism.  Kagan’s 20 minute opening is especially well thought out.
    Richard Swinburne and Robert Merrihew Adams are examples of theists who agree that there are moral properties which exist apart from gods.
  3. Natural Moral Realism: what I like to call practical moral realism, although that’s probably not precise.  I’ll actually use a quote from a theist I met online to capture this:

    I can’t be the only one here who notices that the just world is a world where I can be happy whereas the unjust world is a world where I could only be miserable. If I’m treated unjustly, I’ll be unhappy; and if I’m stuck in a situation where I must behave unjustly in order to get by — I’ll be unhappy about that!

    The idea here is that there are moral truths that are “normative” (i.e. true for everyone) due to the fact that all humans share the same desire for contentment, and having values such as integrity and compassion help us realize that desire. Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Carrier (video lecture), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Sam Harris are all atheists who fall in this camp (with variances among their views).

  4. Moral Anti-realism: the view that there are no objective moral values.  Nietzsche is commonly referenced in this category.  Some modern proponents are Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Michael Ruse.  It’s very rare to find theists in this category but there are a small percentage.

And these 2 diagrams show you that meta-ethics is even more complicated than I’ve made it out to be:

metaethics-flowchart-smaller metaethics

So Where Do I Stand?

I see all 4 options above as possibilities and I’m fine with all of them.  Personally, if there is a god or force or whatever that truly represents pure goodness and kindness (the parts that at least seem to be universal properties contained in that) then I’m all for it.  If it is a personal being then it’s more than welcome in my home for a cup of tea or whatever it likes to partake in.  I’d love to work with it to help make the world a better place to live in.  If living in my heart floats it’s boat then have at it.  I’d love for it to do kind things through me and make me a better, more loving and caring person.  It’s just that some versions of this god as described by the traditional monotheistic religions do not line up with what is commonly understood as goodness, and the world also seems to operate as if it is a godless one.

I explained here why non-natural moral realism seems more plausible to me than supernatural moral realism.  But if you forced me to bet on which of the 4 options is true I’d probably say it’s some mix of 3 and 4 which I sort of talked about here.  This seems most closely matched to Massimo Pigliucci’s views.

Now pick whatever meta-ethical viewpoint you want from the above list – it doesn’t matter which one represents reality to me. Either way genocide, slavery, an eternal hell, pedophilia, rape, etc. all go against my moral senses.  The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter.  The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.

Common Objections

– Our moral senses cannot be explained without God

There seems to be some evidence against this.  Read this.

– Atheists have no right to make any claims about right or wrong

First of all, watch the video above again to see why this is misguided.  It may be a more valid objection to replace the word “atheists” with “moral anti-realists”.

PunchIf a moral anti-realist is being punched in the face for no reason at all, do you expect them to respond with “that’s cool, I don’t believe in objective morality, so if you want to punch me I have no criticism of it”?  Obviously, being in pain, they would have something to say about it.  Obviously they could say “that hurts”, and “I don’t like that” without contradicting their anti-realist stance.  However, If they said “that’s wrong” it would begin to sound contradictory to their beliefs.  I have a caveat here though – it’s not contradictory if by saying “that’s wrong” they simply mean that it’s wrong in the sense that the majority agrees with them that it’s wrong to cause pain.  Also could they say it is “unkind”?  I believe they could.  By the general definition that humans ascribe to the word “unkind” it fits without someone believing that there is some objective “unkindness” property set in place somewhere outside of human minds.  It just fits the definition that the vast majority of humans ascribe to the words “wrong” and “unkind”.  All words have some vagueness about them.  But I do empathize some when the moral realist begins to see a bit of a contradiction when moral anti-realists use the word “wrong”.

– Atheists are being fake when they criticize the Old Testament for it’s moral horrors (see this comment)

Again, for atheists who are moral realists this objection doesn’t make sense.  Brandon (who wrote the linked comment) mentioned Sam Harris, but Harris is a moral realist so it doesn’t really fit.  Brandon may not agree that Harris has a valid reason to be a realist but that is beside the point – if he is a realist he is not being fake.  If you’re unable to see how a meta-ethical viewpoint different from your own could have validity to it that’s fine, but just know that it won’t stop me from speaking against atrocities in the bible such as genocide and slavery.

Now the question does become more interesting for moral anti-realists.  But even an anti-realist may be humble enough to see that their view may be wrong and that morality really is objective.  If one was trying to evaluate the Christian worldview then in the process they would try to take on the viewpoint of objective morality. But then they become faced with the dilemma of these horrific passages which go so strongly against the moral senses of practically all human cultures.  So even an anti-realist can see how these passages go against the morality that the Christian worldview is trying to uphold. They could also feel that these passages are very clearly harmful to human society and that could go against their own desires for a better world.  Anti-realists are just as capable of having empathy as anyone else.

– Atheism make a conversation about morality impossible

Topics in morality are discussed many hours of every day in ethics courses at universities across the entire world, very often without appeal to gods.  Actually it can be more of a conversation stopper to simply say “this book that I believe is the truth is the sole authority of morality”.  If the other person doesn’t see the book as an authority the conversation is over.

An Offer

Lately the following has been a response to theists I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain if there are moral truths that exist or not. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say that you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!”.

Where do you stand regarding objective morality?  Do you think you could place your views somewhere within the 4 listed above?

51 thoughts on “Morality Without Gods

  1. I would place myself in category 4, and I don’t think that saying something is wrong would violate that stance. All I would be expressing is that from my point of view, getting punched in the face is something that isn’t conducive to my happy existence. Morality in category 4, therefore, is just measured from the eye of the beholder.

    From my understanding of philosophy (which isn’t my main area of study, so it isn’t expansive), category 4 asserts that essentially all moral values are arbitrary. Or, putting it a different way, they reach a limit where they are rendered meaningless. Prohibitions on killing, for example, are all well and good except in self-defense and war. Certain cultures blame rape victims instead of perpetrators. Of course one can change this by using other arbitrary means such as conquest, sanctions, or some other social coercion.

  2. Excellent post, Howie! I really think it’s one of the best I’ve read on the topic. I don’t think I would have had the patience to lay out the various positions as well as you’ve done. And like you, I’d say I fit somewhere between 3 and 4.

    Did you hear about the comment about atheists and morality that the old guy from Duck Dynasty said the other day? Your post would be an excellent rebuttal to it.

  3. Thanks for your input siriusbizinus. A lot of atheists I meet online fall into that category and it was the category I fell into after leaving Christianity. I now see some wisdom in some of the naturalistic views of morality that there could be some common moral precepts which we could reason about. Torturing someone for no other reason than the pure joy of it may be one example of such a thing that could be considered commonly wrong.

    You are very correct that things get extremely fuzzy in the details. I didn’t even bring up the trolley switch problem which is the most common example.

  4. I don’t recall the trolley switch problem (unless it’s one about throwing the switch to save one person versus those on the car?).

    While writing the above comment, I would say that category 3 might have a good argument for including moral values with natural selection. Maybe our ancestors who cared more for the group survived because of that blossoming sense of morality.

    At that point, though, I think that there still becomes that problem of at some point, one will need to question things on the needs of the many v. the few. It might be resolved by saying “that which is ethical will benefit the individual and the group.” But I don’t know how far that could go.

  5. I didn’t hear about that Nate, but just googled it. Seems like a real fire-cracker of a guy! Thanks for commenting.

  6. @siriusbizinus: yeah that’s pretty much the problem although sometimes it’s worded slightly differently.

    Your last point is true – this stuff can get kind of fuzzy which is why I said I’m kind of some mix of #3 and 4. I’m really no expert though so don’t take my word for it. 😉

  7. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and those charts do a great job of demonstrating the confusion that can ensue. Your non-committal stance reminded me that when I posed this question to my Socrates Cafe group one person said something that I hadn’t heard before. They suggested that some moral claims were objectively true or false and some weren’t. That’s not a position that you’re likely to find in a philosophy paper, at least from what I’ve seen, but it seems to fit nicely with our intuitions. My view on some moral claims had certainly changed and in many cases of gladly concede that I’m just expressing my opinion but there are some cases that seem non-negotiable. What do you think of the “some are real, some aren’t” possibility and might it fit your position here?

  8. Howie, this a great post.
    I lean mostly on the moral anti-realist side and there is no contradiction whatsoever in saying I find this bad. My position is a case has not been made for objective moral values. I haven’t seen a cogent argument in its favour with examples.
    I would go farther to say with Nietzsche that morality is an illusion that man has erected to check our animal nature.

  9. Howie, as we’ve discussed before, we have similar outlooks on this. I would describe my position as a moral semi-realist.

    I think morality arises from foundations of evolved instincts (care, fairness, authority, loyalty, purity, freedom, and probably others), many of which are in conflict. Every individual feels these foundational instincts in unique intensities, causing various balances between them to feel right in different combinations for different individuals. The example I always give is safety (care) versus freedom. We all desire both, but will have different innate earnest feelings about where the tensions between them should be resolved.

    Of course there are huge overlaps among most humans, which is what allows society to work (psychopaths, sadists, and masochists being obvious exceptions). But that leaves a wide range of possibilities on how the conflicts between the foundations will be resolved in each culture. So, in my view, specific moral rules are relative to a culture, but the landscape on which they existed is bounded by the innate nature of the majority of humans.

    When believers claim that nonbelievers can’t object to any wrongs, I usually point out that the sources for knowing divine moral commands are often in conflict. They must resolve those conflicts, choose which sources to listen to over others, by falling back on their own innate values. In other words, they’re in the same boat as the nonbeliever.

    If moral rules do exist objectively “out there”, I haven’t seen anyone convincingly demonstrate a way for us to know them.

  10. Hey Travis,

    My non-committal stance is actually even more nebulous because I see all of the 4 options as logical possibilities. I just have a hard time feeling that there is enough convincing evidence for 1 or 2.

    But yes, given my best guess of a mix of 3 and 4 it sounds like what you describe (some are real, some aren’t). I could go into further detail on why I think some are “real” if you want, but this is my short answer.

  11. Hey Mak,

    Yeah, I sometimes do wonder if moral anti-realism reflects reality. If I were to take that on though I’d like to get a better understanding of why you still think I could declare things “wrong” without contradiction of my view. Can you explain?

  12. Thanks John! I can’t blame you one bit. It’s probably not worth the read for you because the short summary of the whole post is: “no matter what meta-ethical view reflects reality there are some actions which practically speaking just plain suck and should be avoided if we are interested in having an enjoyable world to live in.” 🙂

  13. Yeah SAP, all that aligns very well with my views. I’d like to blockquote a part of your comment which hits home for me:

    When believers claim that nonbelievers can’t object to any wrongs, I usually point out that the sources for knowing divine moral commands are often in conflict. They must resolve those conflicts, choose which sources to listen to over others, by falling back on their own innate values. In other words, they’re in the same boat as the nonbeliever.

    Also, regarding your last sentence, I agree and would also say I haven’t seen anyone convincingly demonstrate that they even exist. The only argument seems to be that many people so strongly feel that they should.

  14. I know what you mean. It’s a natural argument. When we feel something intensely, it’s natural for us to assume that others do as well. I think the idea that others can earnestly and intensely feel different than we do, is something many people have a lot of difficulty accepting. Many in fact find it incomprehensible. If it’s incomprehensible, then, the reasoning often goes, those others must be insincere.

    While entirely natural, a lot of trouble follows from it.

  15. To the larger narrative, I just don’t find it a meaningful subject. It’s clear (through numerous primate behavioural studies) that empathy and sense of fair play (the roots of this thing we call “morality”) are the product of neurological processing power which enables reflective thought. Enlightened self-interest is natural.

  16. Yeah John I think that is clear as well. I personally find the subject worthwhile to at least give it some thought, but in the end it’s kind of like the rest of philosophy – does it really have an impact on how I choose to live my life? Usually not.

  17. If you’re up for it, I would be interested in hearing why you lean toward an objective morality in some cases. I appreciate the intuitive sense that this is the case but I have trouble translating that into an objective reality.

  18. Sure Travis, I’ll give it my best shot. I think in the end though it may be semantics. While I’m open to the possibility, I don’t think there are moral truths which somehow exist somewhere in some platonic sense (because that’s option 2 which I’m not convinced about). So “real” to me means something maybe different from what you think of. Also, the definition of morality is another question.

    Let me take a very extreme example and maybe it will make some sense. Think of a scenario where you are capable of torturing all conscious living beings except yourself. This seems objectively wrong to me, but what does that mean? First I would argue that it is in your own best interest not to do that – reason being that you are human and humans have some common traits, and there are enough common traits where doing something like that would not be in your best interest. I realize that could be argued against by saying there are exceptions, but I think that begins to go so way off from the norm that arguing in that way begins to almost look ridiculous. So “if it is in your best interest not to do that, and since as a human you would prefer to do things which are in your best interest, then you ought not do that”. That is how I get from “is” to “ought”. All oughts in my mind are of the kind “IF fill in the blank, THEN you ought fill in the blank”. Now not all “oughts” fall into the category of morality. And that is where defining what morality is becomes important. This again is really semantics. But if we follow the commonly used definition of what morality is then I would say that this example would end up properly fitting into that category.

    Now that’s an extreme case, but to me it at least gives me the impression that we can objectively talk about things that fall into the moral category. Obviously things get much more fuzzy in real life (kind of like when we were taught physics in school we were always taught to ignore things like friction), but that’s the idea. What are your thoughts?

  19. Thanks for trying to explain. I think I follow, but the reliance on “common traits” and not going “way off from the norm” is making this look like it isn’t actually objective.
    I’m also a little thrown by defining morality as “things which are in your best interest”. Is that what you intended or did I misunderstand?

  20. What does it matter what we think, or what the cleverest of intellectuals think? Nothing will ever be provable, and we may just as well be pragmatic. Having said that, and for what it’s worth, then speculations as to the ‘objectivity’ of moral values or moral causative laws just seem unnecessarily put to me. There are consistent phenomenal effects caused by what we deem to be our moral and immoral actions, yet to infer some supra-natural principle with agency that somehow exists outside of any possible experience is to step into a metaphysical non-sequitur. As you say:

    “The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter. The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.”

  21. Ok good Travis. I share both of those sentiments with you actually, but the second I don’t see as a counter to objectivity. I want to talk more about that later because it’s important to me (and you as well since it came up before in our discussion on my post about meaning).

    Your first paragraph I think is a bit of a counter, but it depends on how we look at things. I think this is where I say I partially agree and thus why I stick myself in the mix of options 3 and 4. But I still think some kind of valid case can be made here.

    In the scenario I gave I can’t see how a normal human being could be more content causing all other conscious living things to be tormented as opposed to not doing that. To me it is a part of being human. Whether that has to do with evolution, game theory, empathy, or a mix of all those and more is not my expertise, but I think it is an objective fact that humans are that way. Now, I am actually willing to admit though that there may be some very strange exception cases to this. In this case I would say that those people would be objectively determined to be mentally ill if they were to be examined by trained psychiatrists. This seems very different from someone not liking ice-cream. But I’ll even give you that this may still not fall completely into the objective category because of those exception cases, even though they may be called “mentally ill” are really a case of human beings with a differing opinion about being more content even while they cause all other conscious living things to be in torment. That does sound to me like it falls properly in the subjective category. In this case I still believe we can at least talk objectively about what the vast majority of human beings ought to do. So what we could do is start out with some basic axioms about what is common about practically all human beings which relates to “oughts” and then we could build from there just like in other objective fields of study.

    Is that still off the mark?

  22. Hi Hariod,

    I’m totally with you when it comes to the pragmatic. I think you quoted the main point of the post well so we think very much along the same lines. The only thing I may say more is that I sometimes think that trying to think through these issues might end up having an effect on the pragmatic in some way. If these things were more clear I’d say they could end up having that effect, but given how cloudy meta-ethics is that is why I remain very close to your view.

  23. Sure Howie, thinking is seldom a bad idea( o_O ), yet there surely comes a point (in this matter) when we see that we can never get beyond unsubstantiated speculations, or blind faith if we’re religiously inclined. Still, if we insist upon positing something we think of as moral objectivity, then are we not bound also to posit how this putative object-as-causal-law obtains discretely, and how also it supervenes upon the subject? Many thanks for a most excellent article Howie. With best regards, Hariod.

  24. Howie,
    I’ll start by saying that I also lean toward something like you describe and sought to define it as “realism”. But after some discussion and reflection I came to see that the primary characteristic behind moral realism, and all other ontological realism, is independence. If the thing we’re defining does not exist independent of subjective experience then we probably shouldn’t be calling it “realism” or “objective”. Now, that said, if something is subjective on a wide scale then I’m not sure that the subjectivity in itself necessarily defeats our justification for holding those within the relevant population accountable to the true aspects of that very real, yet subjective, characteristic. I think this is what you are suggesting, and I think I agree, though I am still working through the details.

  25. yet there surely comes a point (in this matter) when we see that we can never get beyond unsubstantiated speculations, or blind faith if we’re religiously inclined.

    Only problem is that not all of us reach that point. If there is anything I’ve learned over the years it is that metaphysics and meta-ethics are fields of uncertainty, and an important part of life is learning to deal with uncertainty, so I appreciate your comments.

    if we insist upon positing something we think of as moral objectivity, then are we not bound also to posit how this putative object-as-causal-law obtains discretely, and how also it supervenes upon the subject?

    You always have a way with words Hariod which makes me read at least 3 times. I think I understand this and I say yes.

    Thanks for commenting Hariod!

  26. @Travis: I’m totally not sure myself, to be honest. My own suggestion is almost a shot in the dark as I said in the post “if someone were to force me to bet”. I’m a bit of a hack on the subject, and my guess comes from watching youtube videos, reading various blog posts, and reading parts of some books and trying to figure out what resonates the most with me. You can see several spots on the second flowchart in the post where there are naturalistic views of moral realism and I’m not sure I’ve described them properly. If you are more interested, I’d recommend Massimo Pigliucci probably foremost. I’ve only read related posts on his blog and seen a few videos, but his related book (which I can’t really “recommend” because I didn’t read it) is “Answers for Aristotle”. Carrier’s related book is “Sense and Goodness Without God”. I’ve read pieces of it and seen his lectures but I still had some open questions similar to yours. This site (and specific post) may also be helpful to you: The author will engage laypeople and he is very well versed so you may want to ask him questions if you are interested in learning more about morality.

    Ok, back to your second point:

    I’m also a little thrown by defining morality as “things which are in your best interest”. Is that what you intended or did I misunderstand?

    If we don’t believe options 1 or 2 are viable then I don’t see how we can get to real “oughts” which are not dependent on our own desires. Do you? In fact I’d say that even with 1 and 2 our desires are what will drive us to be moral anyway, and with #1 it seems that we would be moral perhaps even for the wrong reasons (although that’s debatable). Aren’t the actions that we take all dependent on what our own desires are no matter how altruistic they are and no matter whether there are gods or not? I’ve never seen any way to get around this. If we are being “selfless” it is because we desire to be “selfless” and we do it because overall it makes us feel better than not doing that. I think there is a feeling deep down that I know I have that wants to romanticize morality, but I’m not sure that fits reality.

    So 1 or 2 could at least get us completely independent “oughts” that somehow exist apart from humans and that might at least partially settle the bit of unease that some of us have about morality. I see 1 or 2 both as logical possibilities, so perhaps you could hang on to that if you wanted to. You’ve probably seen the Marcus Aurelius quote (which actually isn’t his) related to this, and I think it’s fair enough to live by. I personally just don’t see enough evidence to sign up for 1 or 2, and 2 seems more plausible for 2 reasons to me (law of parsimony, and the existence of huge amounts of horrendous suffering in the world). I think the only reasons both theists and atheists give for 1 or 2 are the same – that it really feels very strongly that it is true. I learned this when Stephen Law, in his debate with William Lane Craig, almost uncomfortably answered the question for why he thought morality was objective. I’m not sure this reason is enough to stake a strong claim in the belief.

  27. Howie, kindly excuse my taking so long to come back to you.
    Why I see no contradiction in something being wrong while at the same time object to objective moral values is because all our experience is subjective. There is nothing that in real sense, is objective to us. Even our perception is subjective.
    And to give an example, a doughnut is sweet. Is there a contradiction it calling it sweet if there is no objective sweetness? If there isn’t, what makes you think morals can’t be treated in the same way?

  28. Hey Mak, no worries, I’m glad you replied. That does make sense to me. I think it matches my thoughts that one could mean “the doughnut is sweet given that practically everyone in our current societies experience it as sweet, even though it’s not a completely universal experience, and even though there is no objective sweetness property”. Yes, I do see the same case could be made for right/wrong. Thanks Mak.

  29. Pingback: Morality Without Gods | Christians Anonymous

  30. Howie,
    It is little more than semantics, but I had started down the path of wanting to claim moral realism without conceding mind-independence and came to realize that this was inconsistent with the way we use realism in other ontological domains. Regardless, thanks for the link to the post, it was a good read. I’ll see your reference and raise you one. I don’t know if I agree with his position but he’s definitely worth a read.

    If we don’t believe options 1 or 2 are viable then I don’t see how we can get to real “oughts” which are not dependent on our own desires. Do you? … If we are being “selfless” it is because we desire to be “selfless” and we do it because overall it makes us feel better than not doing that.

    I agree that even selfless action ultimately comes from a desire to be selfless but we can also knowingly act against our moral intuition in pursuit of other desires. So it seems that we can’t just define morality as “that which is in our best interest” because sometimes we don’t equate the moral choice with the one which is in our best interest. One could argue that we are making a mistake in those situations and are actually acting in a way that is not in our best interest, but then you need to define what it is that makes something “in our best interest” if our winning desire is not the arbiter.

  31. Hey Travis. I think if you would say that the definition that natural moral realists give for making something in our best interest is too vague I’d be inclined to maybe agree. But to suggest they haven’t even tried to define it shows you aren’t aware of their argument at all.

  32. Hmm. Perhaps I misunderstood your original comment. I read it as saying that we can know what we ought to do (aka, what is in our best interest, aka, what is moral) as that which best fulfills our desires. This is the position I was questioning. I did not intend to be suggesting that all natural moral realists haven’t even tried to define “the good” and I’m honestly a bit confused as to where that came from.

    That said, I think Moore’s open question is troublesome for those who try to define good in terms of something other than our moral intuitions. Those intuitions are our gold standard – they are what we rely on to define the good in the first place. Any departure from them has a substantial burden to explain why we should be appealing to something other than the gold standard to define good. I just haven’t seen that. Conversely, if we instead stick with relying on our moral intuitions to define the good then it’s objectivity that becomes difficult to explain. It’s a bit of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation. I’m looking for that elusive middle road but it’s hard to find.

  33. Yeah, I think you hit on some of the dilemma in this Travis. From my understanding of the more natural moral realist view, it inevitably does come down to our desires, but desires which are somehow related to our moral intuitions. Again, I’ve never seen someone come up with an “ought” for someone without tying it to something that would be better for the person to do. Take integrity as an example – that matches our moral intuitions for sure. When we think about why that is though, it takes us to the idea that being a person of integrity will bring us more peace and contentment about who we are as a person. Again the factors for this are complex (empathy, game theory, etc.), but that seems to be the idea. I don’t think I’m explaining this quite right which was kind of why I gave you the references and links. You don’t have to follow them, but I got the sense you were interested in the idea.

  34. It probably also doesn’t help that I’m not careful in my wording – in my last comment I should have said that “I’ve never seen someone come up with an “ought” for someone without tying it to something that would be better for the person to do, without relying on something like options 1 and 2.” Seriously, if you’ve seen that then please link to it.

  35. I haven’t seen that either, and it seems perhaps impossible, which is why I’m skeptical that we can arrive at a naturalistic moral realism.

    If you don’t mind, I might take this opportunity to unload some scattered thoughts. I’m beginning to think that instead of trying to satisfy the intuition that morality is objective through development of a theory of moral ontology, we should instead be trying to understand why we have that intuition (ev. psych, game theory, etc…) and how it can be satisfied in practice without relying on a particular ontology. One problem is that this seems to inevitably lead to a majority rule morality, which is deeply unsatisfying. Lately I’ve been pondering the analogy of cancer. Cancer cells are just normal cells containing our DNA that go psychopathic and start multiplying like crazy. In a “majority rule” scenario, we could say that we’re justified to eliminate the cancer cells to preserve the operation of the majority. Imagine, however, that the cancer cells come to outnumber the normal cells (and the being is somehow still alive). The majority rule principle then falls apart because it would suggest that we stop fighting the cancer. That results, however, in not only the death of the normal cells but also the cancer cells, even though the “nature” of the cancer cells was rapid reproduction. So it seems that the majority rule principle wouldn’t work because it ends up back-firing against the foundational “nature” of all the cells. So if this analogy is apt, maybe it points us toward the possibility of identifying some sort of foundational “nature” that can be used to ground morality – it isn’t universally objective, it’s relative to the nature of the moral agents – but it provides a common foundation for those agents to work together. Now, how to proceed without slipping into eugenics and Social Darwinism…

  36. I think it’s definitely wise to focus more on the practical. Because theoretical ontology seems to me too nebulous to really nail down, but the practical at least has a better chance at being analyzed.

    I think again in this case we’d have to really define morality before even beginning. If it’s defined as “oughts” related to how we should treat others then we could connect it to the practical, which is kind of related to what I was talking about before. And yes, majority doesn’t seem to be a solution in moral questions (although in democratic societies we’re kind of stuck with it). So it seems the “oughts” that could be derived would be the ones that would create societies which contain the opportunity for everyone to have fulfilling lives. Of course as with any talk about morality (even in theism) we run into problems – again we’d have to define “fulfilling” which is no easy task, and each person would have differing things which are fulfilling, and then of course there are conflicts of interests, etc. It’s all very complicated (and believing in gods may make it a little simpler, but only because the group that believes in the god declares what the answers are through revelation or ancient books), but at least we could probably get some of the edges filled in. As far as eugenics or Social Darwinism goes, those don’t seem like they would fit the bill of creating those kind of positive societies, but I’m sure some would debate that.

  37. Hi Howie

    First let me say this is a great blog post. I can tell you really have delved into the issues and do a good job explaining things.

    You say:

    “The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter. The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.”

    I think that depends. Consider the possibility that the gods that gave us our moral senses were crazy. They just randomly gave us our moral senses. But lets also assume real morals exist. Its just that the Gods did not reference the truth of these real morals when they gave us our moral senses. Lets say we *believe* that such crazy gods gave us our moral senses. Would we have a rational pragmatic reason to follow these senses? It seems to me such a belief system would have coherence problems. So if we were to say something like Hitler was evil we would have to admit that our moral senses from which we derive this claim are unreliable. So we would have to say we really have no way to know if he was evil.

    Now since evolution is not in the business of giving true moral beliefs or true beliefs about anything that we can’t touch or weigh (i.e., has no material indicia) we can see that it is formulating our moral beliefs based on something beside the truth of morals. In other words it is hard to see how our moral senses would be any different from that of the crazy gods scenario.

    From the New York times article:
    “As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: “There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just … artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them.” Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps “they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense — it’s very difficult to grasp — but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them.””

    The problem with this view is that evolution comes up with an explanation of our moral senses regardless of whether or not they are true. Yes it *might* be that they happen to match some real law. But the fact that our moral beliefs are true plays no role in the evolutionary explanation. Why? Because moral truth has no material effects. We can understand everything about evolution and how we came about including our moral beliefs without ever believing in morality at all. It is not as if there is some scientific evolution argument against nihilism. This shows that it would be a huge coincidence if our beliefs derived from evolution actually tracked this immaterial moral truth that is “out there.”

  38. “Yeah John I think that is clear as well. I personally find the subject worthwhile to at least give it some thought, but in the end it’s kind of like the rest of philosophy – does it really have an impact on how I choose to live my life? Usually not.”

    I think the question: “what should I do?” to be the most important question. Therefore sorting out the basis of such beliefs is of high importance and in no way an after thought. Sorting out this question is the epicenter in how I arrange my beliefs (Assuming I have some control over the matter, and I assume I do.)

  39. Hey Joe – knowing how much you’ve read and thought on this subject, your compliment means quite a lot to me. I make huge effort in my posts to explain well so I’m very glad it came across that way.

    As I mentioned on your blog, I agree with the epistemic problems regarding morality which is why I am agnostic regarding which meta-ethical view is correct. I would caveat that though with the possibility of Kagan being correct that there are moral precepts that exist like the law of non-contradiction and that the fact that we are rational human beings we can discover them just like we discover the law of non-contradiction. I see issues with this view also though, but I also see big epistemic issues with the theistic view.

    This brings me to your other response to what I wrote to John. I think this is the main point that I’ve been moving toward – a pragmatic way of living – perhaps William James-ish. I believe it’s the best we’ve got. Just like I know I shouldn’t put my hand in fire because it will hurt quite a bit, I can also see the bad things that can arise if I punched someone in the face for no reason at all. So this isn’t saying that the question of “what should we do” is unimportant, but it does say that the basis for this is best grounded in the pragmatic rather than in philosophical meta-ethical reasoning on the matter which is so uncertain. I think this focus of mine which has been forming since I started blogging seems to match John’s as well as Hariod’s from their comments above (although I can’t say I always fully understand what Hariod writes 😉 ).

  40. Thanks for the compliments. I’m not sure that I have read that much and I am sure there is plenty out I have to learn. But I have read some and I have thought allot about these issues – how fruitful the thinking was is debatable. But I am always glad to find others who are also reading and thinking on this topic.

    I think we both agree on some basic points that pretty much everyone who has studied it agrees on. Yes it is important, but it does not lend itself to certainty. We can only hope to do our best. And I think it is an issue where reasonable people can think about it and decide to follow different paths.

    I also agree that pragmatic rationality can play an important role, but I don’t separate that form of rationality from the meta-ethical philosophical reasoning. I try to look at the meta-ethical issues with every form or reasoning and intellectual tool I have.

    It is difficult for me to explain why I need to gun for something like a real morality and can’t just settle for relative values. The best I can do is give a sort of spin off analogy to the allegory of the cave. It seems that if the world is as the naturalist says, then even if our beliefs about how to act are not meaningless they are entirely unreliable. Similar to living by the shadows on the cave wall. Now it’s true that I have not been outside the cave myself. So I have not seen things as they really are like the philosopher in the allegory. But I have seen that if naturalism is true we are just dealing with shadows on the wall. It seems to me that some people will just say, well that’s fine if all we can know is shadows, then shadows it is. (I think this way about relativists like Massimo and perhaps even Travis when we were discussing this.) And I don’t fault them. I think their position may be perfectly reasonable. But I also can’t find the satisfaction they do in that view. I need to keep looking. I admit such an urge may not be entirely rational, but it might. I have been trying to analyze it for a while.

    Does this mean someone like me must be Christian? No not at all. Does it have to do with being a religious type of person? Maybe.

    So if you look at something like Sharon Street’s argument from evolution you will see different paths people take from that. Sharon Street sees that evolution effectively debunks the idea that our moral beliefs are reliable, so she adopts a form of anti-realist morality. Richard Joyce follows the same argument and adopts nihilism. Mark Linville and I follow the same argument but instead of rejecting morality we reject naturalism and adopt Christianity. But there is another option.

    I am listening to a book by Thomas Nagel and he pretty much walks through the same sort of logical steps but he too has epistemic issues with theism. He stops short of that but argues there must be some teleological causation at work in the universe. He is stopping short of saying anything about it beyond that.

    Is he a religious type? Maybe. He might be the sort of orphaned kid no one will adopt. I think many naturalists will say yeah it’s just religious thinking. Many religious thinkers might say well he is just trying to rationalize his atheism.

    BTW with Nagel it is not just morality that leads him to believe in teleological causation but also some other issues such as the existence of consciousness that lead him to believe in it. I am not really proficient to address those other issues.

  41. Joe, I think that seriously may be my favorite comment on my blog written by a theist. I can actually relate to all of it.

    You actually don’t have to explain to me your dissatisfaction with relative morality because I’m not very satisfied with it myself. In fact I’ll even explain it further to you. Take slavery as an example. I don’t like the idea that it’s only wrong because as a society we are horrified by it. I’d prefer what seems to me to be the more romanticized notion that slavery is truly wrong in some objective sense not able to be modified by human thoughts. I’d prefer to be able to point someone to something and say – “see look here, slavery is wrong so don’t do it”. And Hollywood is able to manipulate this romanticized notion I have of morality. When I watched Breaking Bad with my wife I distinctly remember feeling a tremendous amount of disgust toward Walter White’s actions, so much so that it reminded me of moral ontology and I couldn’t help but think “surely this is objectively wrong no matter what any of us think”.

    When I felt I could no longer honestly claim theistic belief and I left my church, there were two things that bothered me greatly – the loss of a sense of meaning (or purpose) higher than myself, and the loss of objective morality. These things bothered me so much to be a partial cause of a 2 year depression. But at some point I made my peace with it and realized that life could still be lived without mulling over it. So it doesn’t really bother me much anymore, but I do definitely still have a preference toward it. So a Kagan-esque or a theistic type of objective morality has some appeal to me, but deep down I kind of have a sense that morality is only objective in the Pigliucci sort of way, which I think is really only partially and/or indirectly objective, and doesn’t seem to have that romantic notion because it’s more centered on self as I discussed with Travis above.

    I have an open mind toward newer ideas like Nagel’s. I remember reading something from Travis about Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos”. Is this the book you are listening to? Whichever book it is, I’m going to add it to my reading list, and I’ll read it after I’m done with “SuperSense”.

  42. Thanks again for the compliments Howie.

    I have been thinking along these lines for over 20 years and at times I feel like the guy with all the newspaper clippings spread out in a room with my theories. I think now that a few other philosophers are drawing the same conclusions, I am somewhat reassured. But it is always nice to hear from someone else who understands where I am coming from. We don’t need to draw the same conclusions but at least we have an understanding of the same problems.

    Yes I listened to Mind and Cosmos by Nagel.

    I have been following Massimo’s blog for a month or so and I do like him and the group there. I am not all that interested in the science bit but he does address metaethics and ethics as well. I am not quite sure I understand his view on moral realism. But it seems he is not an objective realist. Do any other blogs you follow frequently discuss these metaethic issues?

    I have been pretty crazy busy lately but I hope to read your blogs and the comments and pitch in some of my own thoughts and questions.

  43. Cool – Mind and Cosmos is the next book I’m going to read then.

    I’m not clear on Massimo’s views either because they’ve got some complexities to them. But I have seen him clearly say he is a moral realist in several places. On his amazon review of Sam Harris’ book he said “We are both moral realists, i.e. we believe that moral questions do have non-arbitrary answers”, as well as “both Harris and I think that moral relativism is a silly notion”. It may be his definition of objective isn’t exactly the same as yours, or maybe the confusion is because he believes that not all moral claims are objective, but I’m not sure. Can you point me to a conversation where he shows he’s not an objective realist?

    One blog by a moral realist I recommend is this one:, and I found this post interesting: He’s pretty friendly and he’ll usually respond to people who leave questions on any of his posts.

  44. Thanks Howie I will check those out as well as post a bit more here.

    As far as Massimo I am surprised that he made those comments. He seems to be holding his cards close to his chest.

    In comments on his blog he seemed to me to be taking a moral anti-realist view. But he did use some qualifiers. Like “cosmically” I admitted that I didn’t know what he meant there. But he never clarified.

    Here is an example:
    I asked:
    “do you have reasons to believe that morality is not a part of objective reality?”
    “Again, it depends on what you mean by that. Cosmically, no it isn’t. I don’t know how it could. Locally, for human beings, yes there are objective facts about what does and does not improve our wellbeing, for instance. (But then we still need to agree that improving wellbeing is a worthy goal.)”

    I am not sure why a realist would say that we need to agree that well-being a worthy goal. That seems to suggest a relativist view to me.

    Bottom line is I do not think Massimo has the particular interest in morality that several other philosophers have.

  45. Hey Joe. Yeah that comment of Pigliucci’s sounds a lot like it fits into the moral realism of #3 in my original post (I’m not him so I can’t say for certain but it matches with my understanding of #3 at least). By “cosmically” he’s trying to tell you that he is not of the theist (#1) or moral platonic abstract realism (#2) types. This is why I sometimes call #3 “partially objective” although I’m sure that’s not technically correct if I were discussing with experts. The idea is that people would have to be insane to truly admit that wellbeing is not a worthy goal, so while it could be true you’ll have some very oddball outliers, if we at least go with the assumption that some version (which version is obviously up for debate) of well-being of humanity is a win-win for everyone then we could come to some objective conclusions about things that would improve well-being. I think the best analogy I’ve seen to this is the medical field. While some may argue that there are some oddball people who may believe it’s better for everyone to be sick all the time and that death is a wonderful goal for everyone, this doesn’t stop us from forming objective conclusions about things that are “better” medically.

    But I agree with you that the realism that you envision is far from matching his and I really think this is a bit of a semantic issue. I feel you might push back on that some and that’s fine. I think all of us have a difficult time being flexible about semantics sometimes. I’m no exception to that.

    While I obviously can’t be sure, I think Pigliucci probably fits somewhere on the left side of that second flowchart I pasted in the original post. If he were more of a “solid realist” (my terms) I’d put him with Kagan on the right bottom side.

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