The Case for Moral Nihilism

Does morality exist? What would it even mean to say that morality exists? And if morality does not exist, then how can there be moral progress (e.g., how can we say that it was moral progress to end slavery)? These are meta-ethical questions, in other words, not questions describing or prescribing what one ought to do, but questions concerning whether describing or prescribing what one ought to do is even coherent.  I will examine these questions, and more, in this post.

Note on the definition of morality:

I am not going to wade into all of the nuance surrounding how to define morality (people have literally spent entire lifetimes on the subject, and I have discussed and critiqued on it elsewhere on this blog), but I think most people can agree on an intuitive notion of morality based on the pleasure principle that I will call naive morality. It essentially says that it is generally considered to be morally better for a greater number of people to flourish and experience less suffering than it is for a greater number of people to fail and experience greater suffering. What we mean by flourish and suffer there is much wiggle room, but I would call a person’s level of flourishing in how well they satisfy Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I will use that as a naive morality that can largely be agreed on (at least in part) by the vast majority of people. It is something like this morality, at least at is most basic level, that I will be assuming throughout this article.

(Some sections of this post are adapted from my post on the scientific arguments against existence of God titled “God Does Not Exist: Scientific Arguments.” But this post is much more comprehensive and contains much more than is found in that post.)


Is morality something more than mere opinion or cultural convention? More than an evolutionarily instilled intuitions about right and wrong (i.e., our conscience)? Is morality something as real as the screen on which you are reading these words? Is morality something woven into the fabric of reality, eternal, immutable, and universal, or God-given? Is there an objective (mind-independent) moral order the precedes and/or transcends humans?

There is an implicit assumption among humans that a certain level of intelligence, consciousness, and/or sentience (the capacity to suffer) is required for morality. Children are held to different moral standards than adults, and animals are held to yet lower moral standards (with variation even among the animal kingdom – your pet dog can be a “bad dog” but most people wouldn’t say a fly could be a “bad fly”). Conversely, we also give different organisms different moral value: it’s not okay to abuse a dog, but committing a veritable holocaust on cockroaches would be fine (and, in many cases, seen as a moral good, or even moral imperative, such as when a building superintendent has it gassed for insects).

The point being, morality as humans define it has humans at its pinnacle. We humans have both the greatest moral value and the greatest moral responsibility. This is often justified in religious circles (at least in the Abrahamic religions) in claiming that humans have a soul while animals (and plants and fungi and prokaryotes and archaea and inanimate objects) do not. We are God’s favorite beings within all creation. Indeed, we are the very reason God created anything at all. But in order for us humans to reciprocate the great gift of existence with which God has bestowed us, we must behave in the fashion set out for us by God in His holy scriptures and imprinted on our souls.

There are two things at play in the above. The first is that there is an objective moral ontology, i.e., that morality exists independent of the mind – that slavery is wrong is as objectively true as the fact that 7 + 5 = 12 is objectively true. The other issue at hand is whether it is only humans who have moral value and moral responsibility. I think it is clear that both of these things are mutually exclusive: if there is an objective moral ontology that is independent of the mind, then it is always wrong to rape, murder, enslave, steal, lie, etc., regardless of species (indeed. regardless of whether one is ignorant of objective moral facts or dislikes or disagrees with the moral facts). And so, if humans are the species with the highest (or only) moral value and greatest moral responsibility, then objective moral ontology cannot be true. It could, of course, be the case that neither of them are true: there is no objective moral ontology and humans do not possess the highest (or only) moral value and moral responsibility (in fact, the former would entail the latter).

Morality grounded in an Abrahamic God tends to make one, the other, or both of the above claims. To escape the contradiction I mentioned, objective moral ontology might be restricted only to humans, i.e., it is objectively true that it is wrong for humans to rape, murder, enslave, steal, lie, etc., but it is fine (or at least less wrong) when non-humans do it. This could be justified, perhaps, by appeal to the soul: in order for objective moral ontology to apply, the being must have a soul. This seems a little ad hoc, but it is at least consistent with doctrine.

From a scientific point of view we can approach the above three possibilities by examining (A) the evidence for objective moral ontology, and (B) the evidence for morality among non-humans, a morality from which our own could have been derived. As with everything in this post, we will not discover any rebutting defeaters, but there are undercutting defeaters for the above notions (i.e., reasons to doubt).

The issue with objective moral ontology is the same as with any abstract objects: in what way can they be said to exist? Especially if we are to take them as being mind-independent. For instance, in what way could abstract objects such as “freedom” or “justice” or “ugly” or “seventeen” or “useless” be said to exist independent of the mind? The concept seventeen seems to be the member of this list with the greatest claim to objective ontological existence, but we still cannot say in what way seventeen, as a concept (not as particular instances of when seventeen of some concrete objects exist), exists independent of minds. In the same way, if the universe was filled only with non-conscious objects, in what way could it be said that slavery is wrong?

Something that distinguishes objectively (mind-independent) existing things from mind-dependent things is that of grounding. The former do not exist by virtue of some conscious, intentional mind while the latter do. As such, the former tend to be discovered while the latter are constructed. What this means, in effect, is that mind-independent objects (concrete or abstract) can exist without anyone knowing about it. For instance, the speed of light was the speed of light before anyone ever knew that the concept of speed even applied to something like light. Being ignorant of the fact that the speed of light is finite and constant would not have allowed the ancients to have moved faster than the speed of light – it was true before anyone knew about it. Slavery, on the other hand, required minds in order to be instantiated: it did not exist prior to conscious beings and was not “discovered” by anyone, but brought into existence by virtue of conscious thought.

This poses a problem for objective moral ontology in that, should morality have objective ontology, it may be the case that we humans are still ignorant of some (or even all) moral laws. In other words, we may be routinely committing immoral acts that we are not aware of, but are nevertheless objectively immoral and therefore are counted against us (by who- or whatever is keeping score, should such a thing exist). It also means that we could potentially be objectively incorrect in our moral doctrines or intuitions: just as the ancients were wrong about the earth being flat, we could be wrong about stealing or lying or murdering.

If we accept naive morality as defined earlier, then any moral syllogism must have something resembling the following forms:

P1: It is naive moral when state of affairs Y obtains
P2: Doing X has a high likelihood of resulting in Y obtaining
P3: People ought to do those things that have a high likelihood of causing naive moral states of affairs to obtain
C: Therefore, people ought to do X


P1*: It is naive immoral when state of affairs Z obtains
P2*: Doing W has a high likelihood of resulting in Z obtaining
P3*: People ought to not do those things that have a high likelihood of causing naive immoral states of affairs to obtain
C*: Therefore, people ought to not do W

If there is objective moral ontology, then those first premises (P1 and P1*) can appeal to the objectively real morality for their justification (by comparing Y or Z with the objective moral standard). Also, P1 and P1* are true even if the option of doing X or doing W are never actualized occurrences. Further, even if someone does not know that P1 or P1* are true, they are nevertheless true, and so not doing X, or doing W, is still immoral, even if people do not know it. That not doing X or doing W is immoral is something that would have to be discovered, which would mean that it cannot be determined a priori.

A corollary to the above is that morality is universal in time, space, and in any context. Universality in time is clear: that something is immoral was as true in the Planck epoch as it will be at the heat death of the universe. Universality in space is also obvious: if it is immoral to do W in the U.S., then it is immoral to do W in China, or in international waters, or on the moon, or in the Andromeda galaxy, and so on. But universal in all contexts is where things run up against our intuitions: if “thou shalt not lie” is universally true without qualification, then the Nazi’s lying about the Holocaust is as bad as me answering “fine” when someone asks how I’m doing and I’m not actually doing “fine”. And if it is true, but with qualification, then there must be some objective standard of qualifying the principle “thou shalt not lie” which must be discovered and justified by appeal to some endless series of Platonic Ideals of different cases of when it is and is not okay to lie, and when one lie is worse than another lie, and so on. While such a thing does not disprove objective moral ontology, it greatly over saturates the ontology one is committed to.

But if there is no objective morality, then to say that some state of affairs is moral or immoral (i.e., naive moral or naive immoral) requires further justification. This justification must supervene on (human or otherwise) psychology (which, the metaphysical naturalist must commit to, supervenes on the physical). In other words, to say that it is moral for state of affairs Y to obtain, or immoral for state of affairs Z to obtain, is contingent on the psychology of conscious beings. We are essentially taking the care/harm and fairness/cheating (and perhaps liberty/oppression) moral foundations as our basis for morality, since something is immoral just in the case that it is harmful or unfair (or oppressive) to some individual or group of people. There does not need to be an appeal to some mind-independent morality, only to the affect an action has on the relevant parties.


Russ Shafer-Landau, in Whatever Happened to Good and Evil, says that there are three types of moral skepticism, with one of the types breaking down into two sub-types. The three types of moral skepticism are moral nihilism, ethical subjectivism, and ethical relativism. Moral nihilism then breaks down into error theory and non-cognitivism. I, however, would put subjectivism and relativism as sub-types under the broader category of ethical pluralism, though Shafer-Landau does not make this distinction.

In moral nihilism, error theory is the position that all moral propositions are false. Murder is wrong: false. Murder is not wrong: false. Arguing over ethical propositions is essentially like arguing over the average length of a unicorn’s horn, in that all such discussions are just false – the word “unicorn” does not refer to anything; likewise, the words “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “evil” do not refer to anything.

Non-cognitivism, on the other hand, says that moral propositions are neither true nor false, in the same way that a statement like “drink some water” or “disgusting!” are neither true nor false. In this way, moral propositions simply assert our feelings about things. Saying “I hate this movie” is not a statement to which true or false applies. To say that murder is wrong, then, is essentially just saying “I hate murder”.

One of the main thrusts of Shafer-Landau’s argument against moral nihilism is just that there do seem to humans to be right and wrong answers to questions of morality. Moral nihilism, Shafer-Landau says, commits one to moral equivalence: morally speaking, there is no difference between Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. Yet, almost everyone universally condemns Hitler and the Nazis while praising MLK and the civil rights movement. Things like slavery and the Holocaust just are (objectively) morally wrong and the majority of people know this intuitively. Further, it is moral progress that slavery is outlawed in the United States, that slavery is now seen as an abomination by most people in the west. And, to say that there is moral progress on this front is to commit oneself to the existence of some standard by which to judge our moral beliefs and behaviors (even if moral progress is merely reducing contradictions within some culturally derived morality; more on that in a moment). I will talk a bit more about moral progress later in this article and give an account of how we could have something like moral progress even if moral propositions are not objectively true.

But, according to Shafer-Landau, it is more than just equivalence of what are usually thought of as competing (or parallel) moral views. There is also an equivalence with any arbitrary thought or behavior. If giving money to charity or caring for your children have no value, then how are they different from learning new ways to fold napkins? How are humans to adjudicate what behaviors and pursuits should be valued above others if no behavior or action has any objective or intrinsic value? Why not let your newborn starve while you fold napkins all day long? This sort of gets to the alignment problem in AI, especially with the famous paperclip making AI: if there is no standard with which to adjudicate what behaviors are more worth doing than others, then there is nothing bad (or good) about an AI who turns the entire world into paperclips. But, humans do think that there are pursuits more worthwhile than maximizing paperclip production, and so there must be some standard or criteria to apply in judging what is more or less valuable.

Within ethical pluralism, subjectivism says that moral propositions can be true, but they are grounded in personal beliefs. To say that something is wrong is just to say that it is wrong for me, but it is true that it is wrong for me. Similarly, relativism says that moral propositions can be true, but they are true only in a particular cultural context. To say that something is wrong is merely to say that it is wrong according to my culture, but it is true that it is wrong within my culture. Thus, moral subjectivism and moral relativism claim that propositions concerning morality are truth-valued.

Shafer-Landau points out in Whatever Happened to Good and Evil that subjectivism and relativism invite various contradictions. The subjectivist would either have to accept that there are such thing as moral disagreement, or that there is not. In the former, this brings up a contradiction: if person A thinks abortion is permissible and person B thinks it is immoral, all they are saying (according to subjectivism) is that for person A abortion is permissible for person A while person B is saying that abortion is immoral for person B. If both are moral subjectivists, then both of them can agree that one thing is right for one and the other thing is right for the other. Thus, there is no disagreement. But, Shafer-Landau argues, there is such thing as moral disagreement – when person B says that abortion is immoral, they are saying it is immoral period (i.e., the immorality also applies to person A). But then person B, although claiming to be a moral subjectivist, is making a universal claim about morality.

With relativism there are two big issues. The first is something that is implied by relativism, and that would be a principle of tolerance: culture A has morality X and culture B has morality Y, and neither X nor Y is better or worse than the other, merely different. Thus, people in culture A must be tolerant of people in culture B and vise versa. But where should anyone acquire this principle of tolerance? In other words, isn’t the principle of tolerance a universal moral claim? And what if morality X had as one of its propositions that morality Y is bad and must be abolished? Does the principle of tolerance prevent culture B from disagreeing with this?

A second issue for relativism is that few, if any, actions are taken in the context of just a single culture. Shafer-Landau uses the Godfather as an example (he uses a few others, too, but I will use just this one here): if a Mafia member kills someone on order of their superior within the Mafia, is this good or bad? Under U.S. law, and in most of the culture in the U.S. (and New York where it takes place) this is considered immoral. But by the Mafia code of ethics, it is perfectly permissible, even moral. So, which moral code should be followed? Any criteria for deciding would be based on moral propositions. For the committed relativist, this must come from culture. But which culture? Both will make the case for themselves, i.e., a proposition in any moral code is that the moral code itself is moral and therefore to be followed. This offers the committed relativist no guidance. They must then appeal to some meta-cultural criteria, but since the criteria are moral (which moral code one ought to follow is a moral question) then the relativist is committing themselves to a morality that supersedes either culture. They therefore run into a contradiction – morality is determined by culture and morality is not determined by culture. Both propositions cannot be jointly true.

I would argue that something similar to non-cognitivism or subjectivism is the case. To give my position an overly complicated name, I might call it something like convergent subjective non-cognitivism. Let me break this down a bit. I say non-cognitivism because, ontologically speaking, I do not think that moral propositions refer to anything mind-independent. If no minds existed anywhere ever, then the concepts of “good” and “evil” would not refer to anything, and indeed such concepts would not exist, since their very existence is grounded in the existence of minds. I say subjective because, by definition, if someone says “murder is wrong” (and they are not lying about how they think and feel) then it is true that for them murder is wrong. Indeed, I would reject the notion that expressions of sentiments like “my favorite color is red” has no truth value, since for the speaker of that proposition it is either true or it is false (just because there is little reason for someone to lie about such a thing does not mean it lacks any truth value).

The convergent part of convergent subjective non-cognitivism is because I think that the appearance of objective morality has to do with the fact that most people, in most cultures, hold at least some set of shared moral propositions to be true. In other words, there is enough agreement (in the subjectively held moral propositions) among individuals for whom “murder is wrong” is true that it creates an illusion that this must be something mind-independent. That almost all cultures throughout history have at least some kind of prohibition against most kinds of murder is explained by the fact that such personal sentiments would have been evolutionarily advantageous, both genetically and memetically. Thus, most human individuals converge on a moral proposition such as “murder is wrong” and then codify it into laws and cultural norms. But even more than that, we also philosophize with such propositions as pre-established conclusions: few philosophers have ever come up with a system of ethics that says murder is good (or at least not wrong) because all moral philosophizing begins with the conclusion that murder is wrong and then seeks to justify this position. Nobody ever starts from some set of axioms or first principles and just sort of derives that murder is wrong as a consequence of what is true, but instead people employ motivated reasoning to defend a position they already held for evolutionarily instilled reasons. If humans were solitary creatures (ignoring the fact that such creatures likely would not have reached a point where such thinking would occur), then likely we would come up with systems of ethics that allow for murder when we see other humans (because they are competition for resources) or to steal (since it may be easier than acquiring the resources for myself), with such things being good in that they align with what solitary humans evolved to believe.

We could think of this as saying that, instead of moral subjectivism or relativism among cultures, we have a sort of biological moral relativism. Murder being wrong isn’t personal or cultural, it is biological. One might argue that this is a school of moral realism (or moral objectivism, as Shafer-Landau calls it): it is objectively true that it is morally wrong for one human to kill another human (in most cases). But this is, as discussed, contingent on the way humans are so constituted – it did not have to be the case that it is wrong for a human to kill another human. And it is certainly not a mind-independent fact that killing is wrong, or even that a member of one species killing another member of that species is wrong. Nothing holds bears morally accountable for killing other bears; humans do not hold other humans accountable for killing insects. In other words, the mind (and how it is so constituted) is what matters.

Most cultural morality falls within biological morality and broadly overlap with one another (yellow). Disagreements arise either from the interaction of biology and environment (dark green and dark blue) or from powerful social pressures overcoming biology (light green and light blue)

One might then make the case that minds are objectively real, thus moral facts about minds are objectively real. Yet, human minds conjure up all sorts of fictions (concepts lacking mind-independent reference), and while it may be true that “human mind A imagines/believes untrue proposition P” (e.g., “human A believes that the earth is flat” is objectively true) this does not make the proposition P true. Likewise, “human A believes that murder is wrong” may be objectively true, but that does not make the proposition “murder is wrong” objectively true.

Shafer-Landau describes how there can be two kinds of criticisms: internal and external. An internal criticism is one that accepts the basic principles or foundational propositions of a system, but can make critiques about not living up to those principles or holding propositions that contradict the foundational propositions. For instance, if the U.S. is founded on the principle that all people are equal and deserving of liberty, then the subjugation of women or the enslavement of Africans contradicts and fail to hold up to the principles of equality and liberty. Thus, this is an internal criticism. An external criticism is one that criticizes the system itself – its basic principles or foundational propositions. Such a criticism might object that equality or liberty are even values worth having.

What my position says, in effect, is that all inter-subjective or inter-cultural moral criticisms might be external with respect to individuals or cultures, but are internal with respect to the human species. The majority of humans take it as a fundamental principle that murder, theft, rape, and torture are wrong in most cases, and so when we criticize other individuals or cultures, we do so on the grounds that the personal or cultural moral propositions contradict or fail to live up to this wider system of human morality.

I think the animal rights movement is a decent illustration of this. It is an external criticism of the basic principle that all humans have some level of innate value (or dignity, or equality), the criticism being: why just humans? Why not all animals? (Or, at least, those with enough anthropomorphic features and mannerisms that they can appeal to my empathy – kill all the insects, parasites, and protozoa you want). Instead of innate value (or dignity, or equality) for humans, we ought to instead adopt the basic principle that we ought not unduly or unnecessarily harm anything capable of suffering (or, at least, displaying the requisite behaviors indicative of suffering).

Another way to think about this is the way that A. J. Ayer put it:

If our opponent concurs with us in expressing moral disapproval of all actions of a given type t, then we may get him to condemn a particular action A by bringing forward arguments to show that A is of type t.

In my conception, biologically derived morality is morality of type t. What this essentially means is that, when we try to define or defend some moral position, we must put it in terms of the biologically derived morality. For instance, if we say that abortion is morally wrong, we have to say that abortion is an action of a type that humans have a biological aversion to, namely murder. But, if we say that abortion is permissible, then we try to equate abortion with something like bodily autonomy or harm reduction, which are biologically derived moral principles.

Moral Supervenience

It is common in the philosophy of ethics to say that moral facts supervene on non-moral facts. What is meant by this is that, in any two possible worlds where all of the non-moral facts are exactly the same, then the moral facts will also be the same. The corollary to this is that, if any of the non-moral facts in some possible world A differ from another possible world B, then the moral facts in A will be different from the moral facts in B.

This is widely accepted by both moral realists and moral anti-realists. What this establishes is that morality is not an epiphenomenon. In other words, there is no such thing as a possible world with a sort of “zombie morality”. For this I’m making an analogy with the philosophical zombies often used in discussions about consciousness, where we conceive of a possible world that is exactly equal to ours in every way, except that none of the inhabitants of this possible world are conscious – all of them would say and act as if they were conscious, but they would not be. Similarly, we can think of two possible worlds that are exactly equal in all the non-moral facts, but possible world A also has moral facts while possible world B has no moral facts. In other words, when someone in world A commits a murder, they are doing something immoral, but when the equivalent person commits the same murder in world B, nothing immoral (or moral) has occurred.

This, of course, poses a problem similar to that of consciousness: if such a possible world (one without consciousness, or one without morality) is not logically impossible, then what accounts for the existence of (consciousness or) moral facts? What is importantly different about a world sans moral facts as compared to a world with moral facts? Do moral facts make some important difference to world A, even if it is possible for world B to exist?

I would argue that world B is only impossible if the inhabitants of the world believe their to be moral facts. What I mean by this is that the moral facts just are the belief in moral facts, i.e., moral facts are not mind-independent. To say that world B has no moral facts while the inhabitants of world B believe there are moral facts is a contradiction and therefore impossible, since the definition of moral facts is just that beings believe that moral facts exist, and so the contradiction is this conjunction:

[People in world B believe that moral facts exist] and [no moral facts exist in world B]

But, [moral facts exist in B] = [people in world B believe that moral facts exist] and so the above is exactly equivalent to

[People in world B believe that moral facts exist] and [no people in world B believe that moral facts exist]

No such contradiction occurs if we assume mind-independent morality. Indeed, a possible world where the conjunction

[People in world B believe that moral facts exist] and [no moral facts exist in world B]

is true does not result in a contradiction and so is possible. Of course the belief in moral facts is itself a fact that is either moral or non-moral. If we say that it is a moral fact that that people believe in moral facts, and therefore that this moral fact is mind-independent, we are still in the position that we could conceive of a possible world where this fact that caused belief in moral facts is itself non-moral. Indeed, I would say that we can conceive that evolution has caused us to believe in moral facts, but evolution is a non-moral fact, and so it may be (and I would argue that it is) the case that belief in moral facts in the real, actual world is grounded in non-moral facts of evolution (and culture).

If we then concede that it is a non-moral fact that people believe in moral facts (i.e., moral facts supervene on the non-moral fact that caused or led to the belief in moral facts to exist), but we’re once again in the place where the existence of moral facts just is that beings believe in moral facts.

If moral facts were mind-independent in some world C, then they would exist even if no beings in world C believed that moral facts existed. We could therefore have the following conjunction be true in world C:

[No people in world C believe that moral facts exist] and [moral facts exist in world C]

But then we would have to ask ourselves what difference the moral facts make. In other words, we would need to explain why the existence of moral facts in world C is not a mere epiphenomenon, as well as determining which facts in world C ground the moral facts (i.e., onto which non-moral facts in world C do the moral facts supervene?).

The conclusion we can draw from this is that: in a world where mind-dependent moral facts exist by virtue of minds believing that moral facts exist, then the mind-dependent moral facts necessarily exist. However, in a world where mind-independent moral facts exist, then this is contingent and therefore not necessary to explain belief in moral facts. Furthermore, a world in which no mind-independent moral facts exist, but mind-dependent moral facts exist, is not logically impossible, which means that mind-independent moral facts are not sufficient to explain why anyone believes in moral facts. In other words, mind-independent moral facts are neither necessary nor sufficient for belief in moral facts. While this does not disprove the existence of mind-independent moral facts, it weakens the case that will be discussed in next section that moral progress requires mind-independent morality.


In what follows I will look at two papers that argue for objective moral realism and assess whether they defeat my skeptical position. Those papers are:

No Moral Progress without an Objective Moral Ontology” by Jaron Daniël Schoone

An Ontological Proof of Moral Realism” by Michael Huemer


Moral Progress

In “No Moral Progress without an Objective Moral Ontology” Jaron Daniël Schoone gives the following argument in support of objective moral ontology, and for the position that objective moral ontology must be grounded in something “non-natural” (i.e., morality does not supervene on psychology or any purely naturalist metaphysics):

P1: If there is objective moral progress, then an objective moral standard exists.
P2: If an objective moral standard exists, then it is either natural or non-natural.

P3: Nothing natural can function as an objective moral standard.

C1: If there is objective moral progress, then a non-natural objective moral standard exists.

P4: There is objective moral progress.

C2: A non-natural objective moral standard exists

Schoone uses a definition for moral progress in P1 given by Dale Jamieson, which says that “moral progress occurs when a subsequent state of affairs is better than a preceding one, or when right acts become increasingly prevalent.” Schoone then says:

With these definitions in hand it seems clear that there has to be some kind of moral standard which is used to measure whether a person or society is changing progressively or regressively. If moral progress is objective, then this moral standard also has to be objective. I want to reiterate that I am primarily concerned with the ontological status of such a moral standard. To use an analogy: just like the meter is ontologically grounded in a piece of platinum, so too right and wrong have to be ontologically grounded in something. When one progresses from holding one moral proposition to another moral proposition, the latter being closer to the moral standard, one can speak of moral progress.

Where earlier he said “With objective I mean that moral facts are mind-independent.” But why would it have to be that moral facts are mind-independent in order for their to be a standard? Indeed, I think the analogy with the meter is telling: a meter is not ontologically grounded in a piece of platinum, because a meter is something we humans have defined. I’m sure what Schoone means is that something can be a meter long even if nobody is there to measure it (or even perceive or think about it), but that a meter is defined as a particular length is something humans have invented, i.e., there would be no concept of meters if no conscious being had ever invented them.

Schoone uses the example that abolishing slavery was moral progress and is therefore mind-independently a moral good. Yet this is in worse shape than with the meter, since without people to be slave and enslaver, not only does the concept of slavery no longer exist, but neither can there be any instantiation of slavery. It would be like living in a universe that is less than a meter in diameter and so nothing could ever physically be an instantiation of a meter. That slavery causes suffering (i.e., instills undesirable psychological states in people) works as a mind-dependent justification for why abolishing slavery is moral progress (given that humans broadly desire the reduce undesirable psychological states).

For P2 Schoone says that natural is defined as the acceptance of metaphysical naturalism while for non-natural:

Non-naturalism then becomes the denial of metaphysical naturalism. It is not the case that everything is reducible to natural objects but there are non-natural objects and morality is grounded in these latter objects. Examples of non-natural views are for instance Platonism and Divine Command Theory, but the aforementioned view that moral facts are brute non-natural facts also fall within this category. With these clarifications in place P2 becomes self-evident, for P2 simply states that either metaphysical naturalism is the case or it isn’t. Therefore the objective moral standard is either natural or non-natural.

This seems a good working definition for natural vs. non-natural morality.

For P3 Schoone wants to show why natural morality encounters problems by examining “…the location problem, the problem of speciesism, and the problem of evolutionary explanations for morality.” The location problem says:

Moral facts and properties need to be given “a place in the scientific account of our world”. But where can morality be placed or located within the realm of natural entities? No one would ascribe moral properties to elementary particles. But somehow there are collections of elementary particles that do exhibit moral properties. Since there are other collections of elementary particles that do not exhibit such properties it seems that the naturalist is required to explain why certain collections of particles have this moral dimension while others do not.

Furthermore, it might be the case that non-naturalist theories can locate morality, for instance in the Platonic realm of Ideas or in the nature of a deity.

I do think that the view of metaphysical naturalism (materialism) appears to be incomplete as an explanation for consciousness (to which Schoone compares the location problem of morality). But the notion that components of a system (elementary particles) must possess the same properties as the system (e.g., a human being) is fallacious (see fallacy of composition and fallacy of division). In other words, just because elementary particles do not have moral properties does not mean that things composed of elementary particles (such as human beings) cannot have moral properties.

I think natural morality faces fewer issues than non-natural morality. For one, we know how altering the brain can alter consciousness. The famous case of Phineas Gage is a case-in-point, but other bizarre phenomena, such as akinetopsia, prosopagnosia, hemianopsia, or chemical changes using drugs and psychadelics, all attest to the brain having at least some sort of causal mechanism with consciousness. More germane to morality, we also know that the brains of psychopaths (people who do not experience normal empathy, often resulting in immoral behavior) are different in significant ways from typical average people; we know that people born without an amygdala exhibit no sense of fear, which leads them to various amoral behaviors, and other studies on the neurological correlates of morality abound in the literature. None of this of course definitively demonstrates that metaphysical naturalism must be true, but it does suggest the importance of the brain in moral sentiments. This, along with the fact that there is no way to test whether moral thinking can be altered through alterations to Platonic Ideas or Deities, suggests that the brain may be sufficient as an explanation for moral thinking.

For speciesism, Schoone says:

Speciesism means that one prefers one’s own species to other species. In the case of morality it seems that ethicists separate human beings on one hand and other animals on the other. Human beings are moral agents but animals are not. But why would this be the case under naturalism?

Richard Taylor considers what [people living in a state of nature] would think if one person would kill another person. “Such actions, though injurious to their victims, are no more unjust or immoral than they would be if done by one animal to another. A hawk that seizes a fish from the sea kills it, but does not murder it; and another hawk that seizes the fish from the talons of the first takes it, but does not steal it – for none of these things is forbidden. And exactly the same considerations apply to the people we are imagining.”

Obviously this is not a problem for those who would reject the difference between hawks and humans and would state that all animals exhibit moral behaviour (sometimes called pre-moral behaviour when it concerns animals with less evolved brains). This view however would leave us with a world filled with morally despicable creatures that eat each other, rape, steal and so forth. Most ethicist would shy away from that conclusion. There are philosophers and biologists who would argue that certain kinds of animals do exhibit moral behaviour. Usually this pertains to animals with higher cognitive functions, such as certain ape species.

It seems to me that once again this distinction is based upon the presupposition of metaphysical naturalism. For one could agree that only certain animals exhibit moral behaviour and are moral agents without having to hold that this is due to any natural reason. Suppose for instance that the reason some animals behave morally is due to the fact that these animals have consciousness. It appears that many ethicists who ascribe morality to animals also ascribe to them some kind of consciousness, albeit less advanced than human consciousness. But apart from epistemological issues involved with our knowledge of other minds, the issue once again becomes whether consciousness is reducible to the natural. And this has simply not been shown to be the case.

…on naturalism, there seems to be no reason for proposing that some animals act morally and others do not as long as there is no clear explanation of this difference in naturalistic terms.

I made essentially the opposite argument earlier: if we are to accept the proposition that there is an objective moral ontology, then there is no argument for why morality applies to one species and not another. Just as 5 + 7 = 12 and c = 299,792,458 m/s are true for humans, dolphins, salamanders, sea urchins, mosquitos, Psilocybe cubensis, chlorophyta, Staphylococcus aureus, Ebola virus, and so on, so too should an objective (mind-independent) morality be true to all such creatures (and, indeed, to non-conscious objects).

Morality emerging naturally is a better explanation for the seemingly arbitrary way in which moral value and moral responsibility is applied. That humans, for instance, evolved in a social environment, where we depended on the cooperation of other humans in our group, and not on the cooperation of dolphins and salamanders, would explain why we evolved to give other humans much greater moral value (and why we give other humans within our in-group even greater moral value than other humans not in our in-group).

Schoone is concerned with how we can legitimately say that humanity as made moral progress if we do not have an objective criteria by which to compare the shifting moral zeitgeist of humanity over time. There is of course the issue that this judgement has to be made by humans who are situated in a particular moral milieu, which means any such judgement will not be objective (the ancients likely would view our modern society as being in a state of moral regress; older people often lament the moral decay of younger generations). But even if we set that aside, if we use our naive morality, we can judge moral progress by the increase in human flourishing and reduction in human suffering. For instance, the abolishing of slavery and emancipation of women from male servitude are deemed good because:

P1: it is desirable to my own consciousness to have increased flourishing and reduced suffering
P2: all humans have a consciousness of equivalent richness and capacity for joy and suffering
P4: if it is desirable to my own consciousness to have increased flourishing and reduced suffering, then it is desirable to increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of those other equivalent consciousnesses
P4: the institution of slavery and the relegation of women to second-class citizenship reduced the flourishing and increased the suffering of those equivalent consciousnesses
C: therefore, slavery and subjugation of women is undesirable

This moral intuition has in recent decades begun to expand even beyond humans.

Schoone attempts to show that morality with its “foundations” in evolution leads to moral nihilism:

One could therefore in theory construe a moral standard using these natural facts about evolution. Unfortunately, it seems that evolutionary ethics presents its own problem; instead of acting as an ontological foundation for morality it seems to function as the opposite: it eventually leads to nihilism.

The root of the problem lies with the shift that takes place in the meaning of moral terminology such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The evolutionary ethicist seems to understand these words as meaning ‘good for survival and reproduction’ and ‘bad for survival or reproduction’. But of course this is something different than the pre-Darwinian ethicist (let alone the common sense user) meaning of these terms.

And the person who then argues that evolution may be the origins of our moral thinking, but is not the foundation of morality, runs into another problem:

[evolutionary ethicists] would explain that evolutionary ethics is about how morality evolved in our species, but that does not imply that we have to act accordingly. Thus it turns out that evolutionary ethics might explain the origin of morality, but even if it does it seems that it does not explain why we should act accordingly. This seems to be the reason why many scholars agree that given evolution it follows that morality is an illusion cooked up by natural selection to get us to survive and reproduce. But if we do not (have to) act according to our evolutionary moral instincts, then how should we act? This is exactly the dilemma: if evolutionary ethics is the foundation of morality then we should act to increase our fitness, which is almost universally rejected as being what morality is about, but if it isn’t the foundation of morality then we still require a foundation for our current ethics. In both cases, evolutionary ethics fails as the foundation for morality. An example of this dilemma inaction can be seen in Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s  Dangerous Idea. In the chapter concerning ethics he uses the following quote from Ruse and Wilson: “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaption put in place to further our reproductive ends.” Dennett’s reply: “Nonsense. Our reproductive ends may have been the ends that kept us in the running till we could develop culture, and they may still play a powerful – sometimes overpowering – role in our thinking, but that does not license any conclusion at all about our current values.” I would suggest that Dennett is correct, but apparently he grounds our current morality in culture, which would lead to the conclusions that (1) morality is not grounded in nature and (2) morality is subjective.

We can put the question this way: if evolution furnished us with our moral intuitions, but we are free to reject the logical consequence of evolutionary morality (i.e., that what is morally good is that which increases fitness), then what other purely natural phenomenon (outside of evolution) can the naturalist take as the foundation for morality? There is the tautological response to this criticism: our morality is still founded in evolution because we must have evolved to be the kind of creature that possesses our sense of moral realism, thus grounding moral realism itself in our evolution. Although perhaps trivially true, this explanation is still very unsatisfying, since it does little to inform us in which cases we ought to reject the logical consequences of evolutionary morality (a logical consequence, according to Schoone, being that eugenics would be morally good) and which moral propositions we ought to adopt.

This is, of course, the perennial problem of ethical philosophy: what is it we ought to do, and why ought we do it? In other words, what is (are) the supreme principle(s) of morality? The further problem for the ethical naturalist is: is there some fact of nature that informs us which moral propositions we ought to adopt? I answered this question in my post on the supreme principle of morality:

Each individual’s consciousness is absolutely unique and non-fungible. If, say, your child dies, you can’t just “replace” them with a new child, because each of the two individual children were a consciousness that is absolutely unique from each other. A computer or smart phone, however, is not conscious and is therefore fungible – it doesn’t matter which particular “token” phone you have because all that matters is its functionality, and each phone of that “type” has the exact same functionality. The fact that the matter composing each token phone of a certain type is not numerically identical to the matter composing all other token phones of that type does not bestow any extra value to any particular token phone. It is the phone’s functionality that gives it value, and the functionality is replicable and fungible.

Each individual consciousness, on the other hand, are not simply tokens of some type, but are absolutely unique. That a particular consciousness is the consciousness that it is cannot be determined by anyone else, and once that consciousness ceases to exist, it is lost forever. The scarcity of something, which is a function of how difficult it is for that thing to be actualized in existence, is the primary locus of value attribution by sentient beings (at least all the ones we humans know about). Since every individual consciousness (as the consciousness that it actually is) is not something that can be purposefully made and can never be reproduced or recovered, making each individual consciousness the most scarce entities in existence. Thus, the supreme principle of morality is grounded in the absolute uniqueness of each individual consciousness.

I hinted at this above as well, in the previous syllogism: notice I never actually used the word “moral” or “ethical” in it, but simply desirable, i.e., if it is desirable to myself to increase flourishing and reduce suffering, then it is desirable to do so for other equivalent consciousnesses (the word equivalent was also intentional given the above quote – no two consciousnesses are identical i.e., equal). In a sense, this is using the subjective theory of value as a foundation for morality: those things that are irreplaceable (such as an individual consciousness), irreparable (once damaged, a consciousness cannot simply be repaired or reset to some prior state), and inimitable (a replica, simulacrum, or close approximation of an individual’s consciousness cannot be reproduced) are each of infinite scarcity and therefore possess infinite value.

But it’s more than just that another consciousness has infinite value for me (i.e., other people have some utility function for me). It is the recognition other consciousnesses as value-creators in their own right. Because I desire to actualize some state of affairs (i.e., I value some possible state of affairs over other possible states of affairs) for myself, I recognize that the same is true of all other consciousnesses by virtue of the fact that those other consciousnesses arise from the same neurophysiological processes as mine and have been furnished by evolution with the same (or at least very similar) value-making and moral intuitions as me. And since evolution has informed us that those things that possess a common property ought to be related to and interacted with in some way germane to that property, then a person ought to behave toward others in ways that they desire others to behave toward them (the Golden Rule, a common maxim for naive morality).

Schoone may argue that the above still does not get us to an objective moral ontology in the sense of morality that is mind-independent. For instance, if humans had evolved as a solitary species, we would not have evolved reciprocal altruism and therefore we might instead have moral propositions such as “stealing is morally good” since stealing resources from others is a good way to bring those resources into my possession with minimal energy expenditure. To that I would say: if we are committed to objective (mind-independent) moral ontology, we might simply say that this mind-independent moral principle is something like the following:

P1: if one is a member of a species of social organisms, then it is morally good to behave in ways that increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of one’s species (or, at the very least, one’s social group)
P2: human individuals are members of the species of social organisms known as Homo sapiens
C: therefore it is morally good for individual humans to behave in ways that increase the flourishing and reduce the suffering of Homo sapiens (or one’s social group)

Or something along those lines. The specifics do not matter as much here as the point that an objective moral ontology does not necessarily commit one to a categorical imperative, but merely a hypothetical imperative. In the case of humans, we just so happen to be a species of social animals, and so something like the above conditional, which is objectively true, applies to humans.

Or, if we don’t buy into something similar to the above, we could also simply admit that morality has no foundation, that there is no objective moral ontology. We just need to suck it up and accept moral nihilism. The point being, that moral nihilism may in fact be the case might be a state of affairs that we must learn to live with. Just because it is uncomfortable to realize that our morality is baseless, arbitrary, and relative does not make it untrue. It simply may be something we have to grapple with, like the probabilistic nature of quantum phenomena: just because it chafes at our human sensibilities does not make it untrue.

This is more likely than objective moral ontology. The proponent of objective moral ontology has to explain, for instance, why it is that humans evolved to be subject to objective (mind-independent) morality while presumably most animals, all plants, fungi, bacteria, and archaea (and perhaps even non-conscious objects), did not evolve to be subject to objective (mind-independent) morality. If it is possible for an organism to evolve and not be subject to the mind-independent laws of morality, then why presume that humans evolved to be? And why does objective moral ontology give us a standard while subjective moral ontology does not? Just because the qualia of the color red is purely subjective does not mean that all appearances of red are mere opinion.

Schoone says

Whether one holds to utilitarianism, deontological ethics or virtue ethics; the roots of these three ethical theories are based upon some kind of objective principle. Therefore, one can account for the above list of apparent cases of moral progress […abolishment of slavery…abolishment of fossil fuels, other agreements to decrease climate change, the decrease of violence worldwide, the advent of animal rights, the acceptance of universal human rights and human equality, the abolishment of child conscription, etcetera.] by accepting that there is moral progress based on an objective standard.

Can the moral subjectivist similarly account for moral progress? There appear to be at least two problems for the moral subjectivist. The first is that, on subjectivism, the notion of moral progress seems incoherent. I explained under section P1 that moral progress means a change towards some kind of standard. For the objectivist this standard is mind-independent. But what kind of standard would suffice for the moral subjectivist? An examination of different subjectivist positions will show that the  different kinds of subjectivist standards are incompatible with the notion of moral progress. An individual subjectivist (or individual relativist) believes that ones own opinions are the moral standard. But since people often disagree on what is moral, two individual subjectivists with opposing views will have the problem of both having to affirm their own ethical beliefs while also having to affirm that the other person has good reasons to affirm his/her own ethical beliefs. This consequence of individual subjectivism would make it impossible to talk about moral progress, since that notion would simply be a matter of personal taste.

With a similar examination of the cultural subjectivist/relativist that concludes “Therefore, a cultural subjectivist must hold that there is no such thing as moral progress, since any kind of change would be in contradiction to the culture that one has been brought up in.” He then points out that moral nihilists (i.e., people who do not think there is mind-independent morality) like Richard Dawkins still use objective statements concerning morality (e.g., “[religious] indoctrination is wrong” as opposed to “it is my opinion that [religious] indoctrination is wrong”).

I think conflating moral subjectivism and moral relativism is confused, since Schoone says that “An individual subjectivist (or individual relativist) believes that ones own opinions are the moral standard.” But moral relativism is saying that nobody’s opinions are the standard, for there is no standard, hence why morality is relative. Further (if we overlook this conflation), I don’t think it is necessarily the case that a moral subjectivist is committed to believing that their personal opinions on morality are the standard. People often change their mind on matters of morality throughout their life.

Schoone would probably say that this is because the moral subjectivist is actually secretly, or unconsciously, a moral objectivist, and wishes to bring their opinions concerning morality in line with the objective standard. But it could also be the case that the moral subjectivist is simply making the moral propositions they adopt cohere better with biologically derived moral intuitions furnished to us by evolution and genetics – we become convinced that some moral proposition is a case of some biologically derived moral proposition. In other words, moral progress occurs when humans (individuals, cultures, societies) extend biologically derived moral behaviors, grounded in evolutionarily furnished moral intuitions, to more people more consistently, thereby reducing the discrepancies, contradictions, and cognitive dissonances of arbitrarily applying those moral intuitions to some people and not others. Or put another way, moral progress is when our moral behavior becomes more consistent and internally coherent with our biologically instilled moral intuitions, when a moral intuition such as “treat others how I wish them to treat me” becomes more widely and consistently applied.

Objective Moral Realism

I will now discuss another paper, “An Ontological Proof of Moral Realism” by Michael Huemer. The gist of the paper is laid out in the first paragraph:

While there is no general agreement on whether moral realism is true, there is general agreement on at least some of the objective moral obligations that we have if moral realism is true. Given that moral realism might be true, and given that we know some of the things we ought to do if it is true, we have a reason to do those things. Furthermore, this reason is itself an objective moral reason. Thus, we have at least one objective moral reason.

Essentially, Huemer wants to show that if we have even a sliver of a chance that objective moral realism is true, then we have a reason to abide by objective moral realism, and this reason to abide by objective moral realism is itself objectively true, and therefore there is an objective moral reason to believe in objective moral realism. Or, in other words, he says “Ultimately, we shall see that, given that moral realism might be true, it is true.”

Huemer says that moral reasons are practical reasons that must be non-selfish (independent of personal interest), categorical (independent of personal desire), and observer-independent (independent of cultural attitudes). Practical in the sense that a moral reason ought to stipulate some course of action, i.e., the proposition P is a reason to behave or act in a certain way. Non-selfish in that it is not derived from self-interest, and categorical in that the action is not carried out to satisfy one’s own desires. By observer-independent he means:

A fact is said to be objective when it obtains independent of the attitudes of observers – for instance, independent of whether observers believe it obtains, whether observers want it to obtain, whether observers value the fact, and so on. But the terms “objective” and “subjective” have so many uses that, for the sake of clarity, I shall hereafter use the terms “observer-independent” and “observer-dependent.” A reason for action will be observer-independent (“objective”) in the relevant sense just in case the agent has that reason for action independent of observers’ attitudes toward the agent and the kind of action in question.

He then describes epistemic probability, which is: “The epistemic probability of a proposition is a measure of the degree of justification the proposition has in light of one’s current evidence.” Thus, as long as the probability is 0 < P(X) ≤ 1, then there is at least some reason to believe the proposition X, even if it is an incredibly weak reason. This is so Huemer can establish that there is some non-zero probability that the proposition “objective moral realism is true” obtains since objective moral realism does not contain any contradictions and has not been definitively refuted by anyone. He then defines what he calls the Probabilistic Reasons Principle, which goes like this:

1. If the following conditions hold –
           a. If S knew that P, this would provide a reason for S to Φ,
           b. If S knew that ~P, this would provide no reason for S not to Φ, and
           c. S has some reason to believe that P
– then S thereby has a reason to Φ.

Where P is some proposition and Φ is some action that the individual S can take. More simply, this means that the truth of P gives reason for S to take action Φ, but the non-truth of P does not give S a reason to avoid doing Φ. The example Huemer uses in the paper is that of torturing babies, which would go like this:

2. If Sam knew that torturing babies is objectively wrong, this would provide a reason for Sam to avoid torturing babies
3. If Sam knew that torturing babies is not objectively wrong, this would provide no reason for Sam to torture babies
4. Sam has some reason to believe that torturing babies is objectively wrong
5. Sam thereby has a reason to avoid torturing babies

We then reach the crux of the paper (section 2.3) where Huemer says:

We have just seen that we have a reason not to torture babies. What sort of reason is this? Is it a selfish reason? Is it a desire-based reason? Is it an observer-dependent reason?

It is none of these things. The practical reason established by the Anti-Torture Argument is itself a non-selfish, categorical, observer-independent reason. There is a short argument for this, and a longer argument. I begin with the longer argument:

6. The premises of the Anti-Torture Argument are independent of interests, desires, and attitudes (in the sense relevant to moral realism).
7. The premises of the Anti-Torture Argument logically entail its conclusion.
8. If P is independent of interests, desires, and attitudes (in the relevant sense), and P entails C, then C is independent of interests, desires, and attitudes (in the relevant sense).
9. Therefore, the conclusion of the Anti-Torture Argument is independent of interests, desires, and attitudes (in the relevant sense).

And, importantly, for 6 he says:

Why should we believe (6)? Consider the first premise of the Anti-Torture Argument, which is the Probabilistic Reasons Principle. Its status is similar to that of other axioms of rationality, such as the principle that rational preferences are transitive, or the principle that if one desires some end and one believes that a certain action will lead to that end, then one has a reason to perform that action. These principles appear to be necessary truths, true in every conceivable circumstance. (Even if, for example, one has no preferences, it is still true that if one prefers A over B and prefers B over C, then one is rationally committed to preferring A over C.) Of course, one’s interests and desires may affect whether one in fact has a reason to Φ. But no matter what desires and interests one has – even if one somehow has no interests or desires – it remains true that if the knowledge of P would give one a reason to Φ, and the knowledge of ~P wouldn’t give one a reason not to Φ, then a chance of P’s being true gives one a reason to Φ. Nor does the truth of the Probabilistic Reasons Principle depend on anyone’s attitudes toward baby torture – it is not as though, if we started approving of baby torture, then the Probabilistic Reasons Principle would somehow be falsified. So premise (1) is true independent of interests, desires, and attitudes in the relevant sense.

He says that the material conditional “if P is true, then S has reason to Φ” is true regardless of interests, desires, and attitudes. But in what way is this true if none of those things are instantiated? The material conditional “if elves are torturing baby dwarves, then the current king of France has reason to intervene in Middle Earth’s affairs” has truth value (and indeed would satisfy being true on a truth table), but since P, S, and Φ all fail to be instantiated, in what realist or ontological sense can it be said to be true? Similarly, if the universe was devoid of any interests, desires, and attitudes, then in what realist or ontological sense could the Anti-Torture argument be said to be true? If no babies exist, then how can it be true that it is wrong to torture babies? If no being S exists to do the torturing, then how can it be wrong for S to torture something? Being S has to exist in order for abstract principles to apply to S. If some action Φ cannot be carried out, then in what way is it wrong for someone to Φ?

We can perhaps make the distinction here between something that is potentially true and something that is actually true. A potential truth is a hypothetical “if X, then Y” which is true regardless of whether X and Y actually exist. An actual truth is when “if X, then Y” is true and it is the case that X and Y exist. The problem with taking a realist position on potential truths is that it vastly increases one’s ontological commitments, because any material conditional that does not contain contradictions is a potential truth.

But, one might object, if the material conditional “if objective moral realism is true, then people ought not torture babies” is true (i.e., without contradiction or demonstrable refutation), and it is the case that babies, would-be torturers, and torture all exist, then does this not instantiate the material condition and make it true in the actual sense? Here are some of the problems with this: there is a distinction between whether objective moral realism is true and whether we know what the dictates of objective moral realism are. For instance, how do we know that objective moral realism demands that people do not torture babies? Well, we believe this to be true because of our biologically derived intuitions. But (if objective moral realism is the case) our intuitions may be wrong. It may indeed be that the proposition “torturing babies is objectively good” is objectively true (even if we don’t know it is or dislike it). Indeed, even Shafer-Landau points out in Whatever Happened to Good and Evil that:

There are two main senses of universality. The first says that a universal ethic is one that is endorsed by everyone, or every culture. The second says that a universal ethic is one that applies to everyone (even if they don’t endorse it). Ethical objectivism denies that moral values must be universal in the first sense, but agrees…that they must be universal in the second.

On the second understanding of universality, an ethic is universal just in case it applies to everyone, even if it is not endorsed by everyone.

Shafer-Landau, Whatever Happened to Good and Evil

And so, it may be that torturing babies is universally applicable but not universally endorsed. How could we know besides judging based on our subjective values? If we are wrong about it, the ethic still applies to us, even if it is not endorsed by us – even in Shafer-Landau’s conception of objective morality (and he is a moral objectivist), applicability and endorsement are independent of each other. Which means it would be possible for things that are universally condemned by all people to still be universally applicable, i.e., we ought to do those things even if we find them horrific. We could thus apply Huemer’s logic:

2*. If Sam knew that torturing babies is objectively good, this would provide a reason for Sam to torture babies
3*. If Sam knew that torturing babies is not objectively good, this would provide no reason for Sam to avoid torture babies
4*. Sam has some reason to believe that torturing babies is objectively good (this view does not contain any contradictions)
5*. Sam thereby has a reason to torture babies

Huemer attempts to counter this by saying:

If the Anti-Torture Argument claimed that baby torture is wrong, then we might need the assumption that ethical intuition is reliable. Likewise, if there were some information-source, or alleged information-source, that told us that we should torture babies, then we might need the assumption that ethical intuition is more reliable than that source, in order to avoid the situation in which our alleged reason against baby torture would be exactly counterbalanced by an equal reason in favor (following the suggestion of section 2.1 that exactly counterbalanced alleged reasons would cancel each other out). But in fact, we have only the intuition that baby torture is wrong, and no intuition, nor any other putative information source, supporting baby torture. So if intuition even might be reliable, then we have at least some reason to avoid baby torture since it might be wrong. And even the most hardened moral skeptics will find it difficult to maintain that there is zero probability that ethical intuition is reliable.

In other words, the possibility that the proposition “it is objectively true that torturing babies is morally wrong” and the proposition “it is objectively true that torturing babies is morally good” might cancel each other out, but then moral intuition favoring the former over the latter acts as a sort of tie breaker. This fails to counter the objection, since it still relies on moral intuition to break the tie.

Furthermore, the Probabilistic Reasons Principle is not categorical, but is in fact hypothetical. It is essentially saying this:

P1: If one wishes to abide by objective morality in situation H, then one ought to undertake only those actions that are morally good
P2: Doing the action Φ in situation H is objectively moral
C: Therefore, while one is in situation H one ought to undertake the action Φ

In other words, what if it is the case that people actually wish to do evil? For instance, if it actually turns out to be the case that it is objectively true that torturing babies is morally good, what if it happens to be the case that humans evolved (or were created) to do evil, and therefore we have been furnished with the intuition to not torture babies? Or, if it is the case that torturing babies is objectively a moral wrong, a person must still decide if they want to be the kind of person that avoids what is morally wrong. The point being, if P is true, that may give S reason to do Φ, but P is not sufficient for S to do Φ, there needs to be the further stipulation that S wishes to take P (or whatever P entails) as a motivating factor to do Φ. In other words, S needs to value P in some subjective way for P to be a sufficient reason to do Φ. For instance, it may be the case that it is objectively true not to contribute to another person’s suffering, yet many of my actions do contribute to the suffering of other people: my buying a phone that requires coltan contributes to the suffering of other people, but this fact is apparently not sufficient for me (or millions of others) to stop purchasing new phones every couple years. In other words, we make the following calculation:

P1: If one does not care to abide by objective morality when purchasing a phone, then one ought to purchase coltan-containing phones
P2: Purchasing coltan-containing phones when purchasing a phone is objectively immoral
C: Therefore, one will undertake an objectively immoral action in buying a coltan-containing phone

Yet most of us would likely be loath to admit that we, and our loved ones, are moral monsters on the level of the investors in the Royal African Company who profited off the Atlantic slave trade.

But perhaps the biggest issue facing Huemer’s thesis that the Probabilistic Reasons Principle is independent of interest, desire, or attitudes is this: moral propositions apply only to those entities capable of possessing interests, desires, or attitudes about states of affairs. We can also think of it this way: why is it morally wrong to torture babies, but not morally wrong to torture bacteria or cancer cells or inanimate rocks? It’s simple: babies have an interest in, and desire to not be tortured. It’s not the case that torture is categorically wrong, it is the case that it is wrong to torture something that has an interest in, and desire to not be tortured. Furthermore, it is morally wrong to torture those things deemed to have interests and desires important enough to ourselves that such beings are deserving of rights and dignity. In other words, for it to be wrong to torture some being B, two things must be satisfied:

(1) being B possesses an interest in and desire not to be tortured
(2) other beings are of the attitude that B satisfies some criteria for candidacy to be among those beings deserving of the right not to be tortured

Or put yet another way: the immorality or torture is grounded in interests, desires, and attitudes.

Evolutionary Debunking Arguments

A main thrust of my position can be considered an evolutionary debunking argument (EDA for short). An EDA is an argument that attempts to show that some belief or intuition is instilled by evolution, that evolution is not a process meant to furnish us with truth-acquiring (or truth-tracking) faculties, and so we therefore have an undermining defeater for those beliefs or intuitions. This can be generally stated like this (according to Kahane):

Causal premise. S’s belief that p is explained by X.
Epistemic premise. X is an off-track [not truth-tracking] process.
Therefore, S’s belief that p is unjustified.

Or, somewhat more concretely:

Causal premise. We believe that p, an evaluative proposition, because we have an intuition that p, and there is an evolutionary explanation of our intuition that p.
Epistemic premise. Evolution is not a truth-tracking process with respect to evaluative truth.
Therefore, We are not justified in believing that p.

It is generally agreed that both premises are making empirical claims – even if they seem plausible, they must be empirically established. That our moral intuitions are furnished by evolution is something that would have to be empirically established. That evolution is not in the business of supplying humans with truth-tracking faculties is also something that would need to be empirically shown.

I would agree that the causal premise is empirical, but the epistemic premise I think can be established at least to a reasonable degree even without reference to empirical evidence. The main reason for this is because the theory of evolution does not entail, or even imply, that truth-tracking is something that must, or even can, arise by processes of genetic mutation and natural selection. Indeed, I would argue that the converse is what would need to be empirically established: that evolution furnishes organisms with truth-tracking faculties. Now, we could take a pragmatist stance on epistemology, which I tend to do, and say that being able to navigate the world is indicative of some form of truth-tracking faculties, at least in domains that are important for survival and reproduction. For instance, it is true that falling off a large cliff will cause me to perish, and therefore there must be some truth my senses can gather about properties of large cliffs, namely properties that have to do with their potential affects on me.

Whether the beliefs I form about large cliffs beyond these kinds of pragmatic facts correspond to other properties about cliffs is another question. There are three ways we can think about this: properties about cliffs that are defined by humans (e.g., how many meters high it is depends on how humans have defined a meter; that it is a cliff and not a bump, ledge, hill, sink hole, or some other thing), properties about cliffs that depend on other contingencies of humans (e.g., a large cliff is “large” because of its size relative to humans, but is not “intrinsically” large, whatever that may mean), and then properties that we might say have to do with cliffs mind-independently (that they are made of matter and energy; that the rock making it up is mostly empty space; that it persists when not being sensed or thought about by anything; and, of course, there may perhaps be many things about the cliff that no human mind can grasp because evolution has not furnished us with the capacity to comprehend or sense such properties).

If we can at least establish that much about the epistemic premise, then what needs to be done is to show that the causal premise applies to beliefs about morality in the same way they do to beliefs about cliffs. What I’ve tried to show in the above analysis is that there are essentially four kinds of properties relevant to our beliefs:

  1. Properties that affect my survival and ability to reproduce
  2. Properties that are based on how humans define and conceptualize things
  3. Properties that have to do with other contingencies, such as the size of humans, the fact that humans have two arms and two legs, our human umwelten, and so on
  4. Properties that are mind-independent and for which beliefs about them are unnecessary for forming beliefs about the other three kinds of properties
    • The stipulation that beliefs about these mind-independent properties are unnecessary for forming beliefs about the first three kinds of properties does not mean that beliefs about mind-independent properties can not or do not affect beliefs about the other three kinds of properties, but that it is not necessarily the case that anyone have beliefs about these mind-independent properties in order to form beliefs about the other three kinds of properties

Our beliefs about the first kind of properties are, by definition, evolutionary. I think it’s fairly clear that the third kind are as well. The second kind are merely definitions, but one can certainly make a case that there is an evolutionary aspect to it. For instance, our definitions require language, which is a capacity that evolution has furnished to us. It’s the fourth one that we are concerned with. What we need to do, if we are to support the causal premise, is to show either that evolution has given us little to no capacity for tracking properties of the fourth type, and/or that moral intuitions and beliefs are concerned with one of the first three types of properties that, as mentioned, do have at least an evolutionary aspect, if not being completely determined by evolution.

The problem with establishing that evolution has given us little to no capacity for tracking properties of the fourth type is that whether evolution has furnished us with such a capacity would itself be a mind-independent fact. I think, for reasons I won’t get into here, that humans are capable of gaining knowledge about at least some mind-independent facts, but there is no way to know how many mind-independent facts are true that humans are incapable of ever knowing. The upshot is that it makes this approach a dead end for establishing the causal premise.

In order to establish the causal premise, then, it then needs to be shown that moral beliefs and intuitions are about one of the first three types of properties. I think it is conceivable, even probable, that many moral intuitions and beliefs are about the first kind of properties: being generally cooperative and social lead our ancestors to greater chances of survival (natural selection) and greater chances of reproducing (sexual selection). This is somewhat of a just-so story, but the alternative seems even more unlikely: that humans have the moral intuitions and beliefs that we do and evolution had nothing to do with our having those moral beliefs and intuitions (i.e., our morality is mostly or completely independent of our evolutionary history), or worse yet that we have the moral intuitions and beliefs we do despite our ancestors facing selection pressures that would favor uncooperative and antisocial behaviors. I would argue, then, that what would need to be established by the moral realist is (A) that human moral beliefs and intuitions are acquired by a faculty possessed by humans that we have been furnished with independent of human evolution, (B) that this faculty humans possess that is not furnished by evolution is the primary (or sole) source of our moral knowledge, and that (C) if humans had evolved differently than we did, but still possessed this non-evolutionarily instilled faculty, that we would still acquire the same moral beliefs and intuitions that we have now.

One might make the argument that perhaps it is the case that humans did evolve to have the moral beliefs and intuitions that we do, but that objective, mind-independent morality may have exerted a selection pressure on our evolutionary ancestors. In other words, that since morality is as real as anything else our ancestors faced, then we cannot discount objective morality as itself influencing human evolution to adopt beliefs and intuitions about morality that correspond in important (even if imperfect) ways with objective morality. Just as all creatures must evolve in a way that takes gravity into account in important ways, so to would creatures need to evolve in a way that takes objective morality into account in important ways. This, however, ignores the fact that this same selection pressure would apply to all organisms, and surely parasites, infectious bacteria, viruses, and other such unsavory creatures do not adhere to human morality. It is also motivated reasoning, going something like this:

P1: We humans evolved to have the moral beliefs and intuitions we have (e.g., naive morality or something similar)
P2: The moral beliefs and intuitions possessed by humans are the ones that humans want to be the correct ones to have
C: Therefore, we humans must have evolved to have these moral beliefs and intuitions because they correspond to what is actually true about morality


P1: Humans believe that human moral beliefs and intuitions are in greatest correspondence to objective morality (i.e., compared to any other organism on earth)
P2: Humans evolved to have the moral beliefs and intuitions that we do
C: Therefore, humans evolved to have moral beliefs that correspond most to objective morality

Concluding Remarks

It is certainly more pleasing to believe in objective moral realism. It instills within us a sense of order and rightness. One can condemn monstrous acts and be correct about it. Without objective moral realism, there is a sense that we have no ground to stand on when making moral condemnations. If, for instance, slavery and the Holocaust are not objectively immoral, then how can someone condemn them? How is it that we can say that society is more moral now than it was during the Atlantic slave trade or the Nazis? How can we know what the good life is?

There is a sense in which the moral anti-realist must just bite the bullet and say deal with it. Just because you might not like that we live in a quantum mechanical world where reality is probabilistic does not make it untrue. Similarly, just because we live in a world that lacks objective morality makes you uncomfortable does not mean it isn’t the case that there is no morality.

However, in my view there is a glimmer of hope. This is two-fold. First, although morality is grounded only in the contingencies of human biology, it is the case that we are evolutionarily instilled with moral intuitions (a conscience, if you will). Thus, if you, like the majority of people, want to live in a world that largely conforms to this sense of morality, then you are in luck, because that is what people are likely to strive for. In other words, morality may just be human sentiments, but being that we are human, and interact with other humans, by-and-large people are going to do what they can to appeal to those sentiments. Put yet more differently: in the absence of objective morality, humans will (broadly speaking) behave as if there is objective morality, since what moral realists call objective morality just is human moral intuition.

The second, which I discussed in more detail above, is that human worth is a matter of the subjective theory of value. You can read even more about that in this post of mine. But the takeaway is that, since humans value things in part based on scarcity, and each human consciousness is absolutely unique (and therefore infinitely scarce), then humans greatly value each individual.

Throughout this post I have been using the naive morality conception I described at the outset of this article. But naive morality tends to be founded in the care/harm and fairness moral foundations. What about loyalty, authority, and sanctity? An issue with these moral foundations is that they tend to be more parochial, i.e., for them to be universally applicable means either A) that everyone submit to one authority, be loyal to one group (perhaps humankind? All living creatures? These seem to dilute loyalty to the point of impotency), and sacaralize the same things; or, more likely, B) that all people submit to separate authorities, have separate loyalties, and sacralize their own things. Yet, to do B by definition generates relativism and subjectivism: if no single authority is the objective authority (or, at least, there is no objective standard to determine who ought to be the authority), if no single group is the objective group to which one must be loyal (i.e., we ought to be loyal to our own culture or society), and the sanctity of things is relative to culture (or personal opinion), then these are examples of relativist (or subjectivist) morality. The moral objectivist must then be committed only to the care/harm and fairness moral foundations.

Shafter-Landau argues that cultural and personal expressions of morality are only instances of a more general objective morality, of which reducing harm and increasing well-being seem to fit the bill. Different cultures will may different ways of doing this, but they are all instances of the general objective moral standards to which all cultures and individuals are subject (i.e., people ought to endorse these general objective moral standards, even if in reality they currently are not doing so). But it is difficult to see how there could be a general objective moral standard for submission to authority (for instance: to whom ought the highest authority submit themselves? Is the lack of any authority in area or on some issue immoral?) or to sanctity (should Christians need to undertake the Hajj since the ritual is generally and objectively sacred?).

If these moral foundations (authority, loyalty, sanctity) are not instantiations of the more general objective moral standards, then these moral foundations are not actually moral propositions. Or, if they are, they are relativist (or subjectivist) morals, but that would contradict objectivism. Thus, they must be non-moral and therefore not universally applicable. Of course, many people disagree with this conclusion, but as Shafer-Landau says, endorsement and applicability are independent of each other.

The issue, as I’ve discussed, is that these moral foundations cannot be generalized. Authority always implies a specific authority – a person or committee of people to whom we must submit. Loyalty always implies a specific in-group and its concomitant out-group. Sanctity always implies specific objects or behaviors – those that are sacred and those that are not sacred (or are profane). It is thus contingent on particular circumstances. But, as I’ve been arguing, this is the case for care/harm and fairness, it’s just simply broader circumstances, namely those of human beings rather than cultures or individuals.

The following two videos discuss this well (and even with some of the philosophers I’ve discussed in this post):