Veganism is not a moral baseline

moral baseline

“Veganism is a moral baseline that aligns values with actions. Anything less is just hypocrisy”.

I am really opposed to this kind of message because I think it is one of the main reasons people don’t go vegan.

I understand that to vegans, this kind of message is really appealing, but that doesn’t make it true. Whether veganism is morally imperative or not is a philosophical claim. Proclaiming it at people is not making an argument for it. I happen to think it is false (that veganism is morally imperative) and that arguments along this line of thinking are in error. But that is besides the point of this post.

Even if veganism is not a moral imperative (or even if there are no such things as moral imperatives), that doesn’t mean that there is no reason for an individual to choose to be vegan.

There happens to be many facts that are relevant to the decision to go vegan. Combine these facts with personal values to be healthy, not cause suffering, or help the environment, and people are going to be more motivated to choose vegan options –or life a vegan lifestyle. (Another facet to vegan advocacy is the removal or challenge to fallacious thinking).

Think about a similar argument for the existence of God. What if someone said to you: “Living according to the bible is a moral baseline”. Would you feel like there is a open exchange of ideas, or just a condemnation of anything except a Christian lifestyle?

My point is this: It matters to the animals (and to me) that people choose vegan options, and that the world increasingly moves towards veganism. Anything that thwarts this goal is my enemy (rhetorically speaking), and I want to challenge it. The abolitionist approach to animal rights (where this use of the moralistic phrase “moral baseline” comes from) is based on flawed philosophical ideas, and it is important that vegans stop using it to beat non-vegans around the head with their in-group ideas. We have to speak to the audience, not just celebrate what we already think. Furthermore we should always proportion our beliefs to the evidence, and for moral imperatives there is only ever the argument from intuition.

The good, bad, and ugly of the abolitionist approach to animal rights

The effectiveness of and truth (or falsity) behind Francione’s vegan advocacy

Gary Francione (click for full biography) is an American professor of law and philosophy at Rutgers University. He has contributed to the animal rights movement with books, podcasts, speeches, radio and television spots, and increasingly with social media and webinars. He, along with his partner Anna Charlton, cover topics that promote veganism and the abolitionist approach to animal rights (AAAR). The AAAR borrows its name from the abolitionists of the United States’ 19th century civil rights movement because it shares the notion of abolition –rather than incremental change.

On Gary Francione

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Gary Francione

I intend to separate Francione from the ideas he espouses. I don’t intend to attack him personally, I intend to critique his ideas. I believe Francione is sincere in his beliefs of: moral realism, that animals have moral value, that it is wrong to use animals, and that he is correct to follow and promote the AAAR.

You should make up your own mind at to Francione’s views. What follows are mine. You can find Francione at these online locations:

This purpose of this post

I have a variety of views to different aspects of the AAAR, some positive, some negative. Ultimately, I think the world that Francione wants to work towards is one which is very agreeable to me; one that I would want to see. Unfortunately, I disagree with much else of the AAAR.

There are at least three facets to my views on the AAAR:

  1. my critique of the philosophical basis for the AAAR;
  2. the effectiveness of the approach in reducing animal suffering;
  3. the conflation of veganism with issues not strictly related to animal exploitation;
  4. my acknowledgement of Francione’s contribution to the animal rights movement with critiques of other historical approaches to animal issues, and more.

With that said, in this post I will comment primarily on the effectiveness of Francione’s AAAR messages, i.e. whether they bring vegans and non-vegans closer to more vegan choices and the vegan lifestyle.

I will also try to tease his messages apart: separating appeals to compassion from philosophical claims. I will use images from his twitter account as example of the messages that Francione spreads there and elsewhere. I will break the messages into the good, the bad, and the ugly. First, I will attempt a fair representation of the AAAR.

The abolitionist approach to animal rights

There are six principles to the AAAR, which I want to present accurately.

Principle one:

  1. Sentient beings have the basic right not to be treated as property (i.e. an object, as opposed to a legal “person”)

Principle two:

  1. The legal right not to be treated as property implies that there must be an abolishment of institutionalised animal exploitation
  2. There should not be a support for welfare reform campaigns, or single-issue campaigns such as: cage-free eggs, enriched cages for birds, meatless Mondays (as opposed to meatless everyday), vegetarianism (as opposed to veganism), “humane/happy” animal use or products, etc.
  3. There should not be any promotion of reducetarianism (the reduction of animal use or eating), welfare reforms, protectionism, or similar, as opposed to veganism

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Principle three:

  1. Veganism is the least which a person must be in order to be acting morally
  2. Creative, nonviolent vegan education is the way to do vegan advocacy (bring others towards a vegan lifestyle)

Principle four:

  1. Sentience is the criteria for establishing whether something or someone is in the “moral community”. This inherently rejects speciesism (the discrimination based on species membership)
  2. Being a member of the moral community is –at least– sufficient to establish moral rights
  3. Said moral rights are sufficient to establish the fact that all sentient beings are morally equal for the purposes of not being used exclusively as a resource

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Principle five:

  1. We should reject of all forms of human discrimination that is based on morally irrelevant criteria
  2. It is inconsistent to oppose speciesism but not other forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism
  3. It is inconsistent to oppose racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism but not speciesism

Principle six:

  1. The animal rights movement is an extension of the peace movement with the inclusion of extending peace to nonhuman animals
  2. The animal rights movement promotes nonviolence
  3. It would be impossible to establish a principled way to justify violence for animal rights because most people engage in animal exploitation

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You can read my history of animal ethics post to gain some extra context for Francione’s views. Some of his books:

The good (effective).

In this post, for the sake of the animals, I’m defining “good” as effective vegan messages; messages that bring non-vegans closer to veganism, to choose more vegan options and choose vegan options more often. Here are some examples of good messages by Francione.

These messages all appeal to the viewer for compassion. They make no false statements, and do not push non-vegans away from veganism. In short, they are positive and/or factual, and effective.

The bad (ineffective).

These are any messages that Francione uses that might make non-vegans feel judged, or otherwise negative about veganism. Therefore these messages reduces the chance that non-vegans would “go vegan” as Francione would demand. (I prefer to say “be vegan”, because it is an act that can be done once, twice, a little, a lot, or completely).

Most of these messages come across as judgements and assertions that non-vegans are harming animals, unkind, unfair, exploiting animals, making excuses, causing suffering and violence, not doing enough, etc.. I may not disagree with these views, but I understand that how they are presented (if at all) needs to be done with care.

There needs to be a focus on effectiveness –on helping the animals. Messages that make non-vegans dig their heels in the sand in defensiveness won’t help the animals. Unless these messages were provided differently, it would be more effective to say nothing.

I do understand that if you accept the ideas of veganism, these messages seems “true”, but the for the sake of the animals which suffer due to human exploitation, it is important to focus on a message being accepted by non-vegans. In focusing on the animals, it is important to be effective, not purely right or correct (if that is even the case; it may be that we are wrong).

I can only see these messages being justified by a sincere belief that Francione is correct about the issues. Only if you believe that animals have moral rights and therefore are not objects to be used, could you feel justified in saying such truths without concerning yourself with how the message is received; if it is accepted or not. To me this is the essence of fundamentalism, of ideologues, of dogmatism: a view that stopped asking whether it is justified or true. Rather it comes across as convinced of its own truth. This is against my preferred spirit of pragmatism.

The ugly (incorrect).

Many of the images in this section also could fall under the ineffective (bad) category, but I have included them here because they provide clear examples of questionable reasoning or assumptions. I am primarily referring to Francione’s meta-ethical views.

Most of my critiques to the content of these images have been explored in my other posts (search “moral realism”). Whether you agree with my meta-ethical position as a moral anti-realist, or with Francione as a moral realist, I maintain that these kinds of images are ineffective to non-vegans.

Unless non-vegans accept Francione’s moral realist view, non-vegans will simply ask questions like: “how do you know animals matter morally?” and possibly make assertions like: “morality is subjective”. Whichever your view on this, the fact is that these debates are far from settled in philosophy. Hence, while I have my views, the practical question is whether these images effective for animal advocacy? These images are ineffective at best, certainly they are philosophically questionable, and at worst completely erroneous.


References

G. L. Francione (personal communication, July 21, 2017)

Child, theist, athiest, nihilist: A personal evolution.

From child to belief in God

I was raised in a non-religious household, and enrolled in a Catholic primary school for my first three years. Our class attended the on-site church weekly and was taught how to pray. We were encouraged to believe in the Christian God, and the authority of the school and rituals confirmed the importance of belief. The fear of God had been instilled in me. I believed.

I would pray at night, even if my family never did. It seemed to me, at that young age, that the concepts taught in church were of the utmost importance; if God existed as I was taught, I needed to believe and I needed to obey. What could be more important than learning and obeying the will of God? Given the ceremony, the ritual, the unanimity of belief at my school, rejecting the existence of God never occurred to me.

To atheism

We moved town and I left my school. That was the end of my religious influence. I was 8. The next time I thought about the existence of God again was when I was 14. At the time I was internally torn about what I believed. I was sympathetic with non-belief, but I was scared that if I was wrong, I might go to Hell.

Eventually, I rejected Pascal’s Wager and personally embraced the atheist label. It wasn’t much longer before I found existence of the Christian God to be an absurd idea. Without going into detail, I find the idea of a personal god to be anthropocentric and the belief in one to be the result of existential need, rather than the result of rational thought or extraordinary evidence.

These days I am comfortable with the label “atheist” in that it means I do not believe in any gods. A theistic God, which is involved in human affairs, his/her creation, and has a holy text for humans to read, is sometimes called a personal god. I believe that a personal god does not exist. In this respect I am a hard-atheist (asserting the belief that god does not exist). But wait, there’s more…

On the other hand, while I don’t believe in an impersonal god, I don’t believe one doesn’t exist. This would make me a soft-atheist in this respect. Deism (the idea that god exists and created the world but is not involved in human affairs), is a far more reasonable view than theism. Most people that believe in god are theists, not deists, but I do not find deism to be an absurd view.

Overall, I don’t believe in any gods, and we could quibble on my intuitions about theism and deism, the larger point is that I don’t hold a believe in any god any longer. I consider the default position with respect to any theory to be the null hypothesis: a skeptical non-acceptance of entities and concepts until a reasonable amount of evidence has been produced in their favour. As a result, I consider a-theism to be the default position, one which I hold.

New-Atheism and anti-theism

For a time, I enjoyed reading and watching the four horsemen of New-Atheism (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, & Dan Dennett). Their critiques of religion were a welcome sound to my ears. One of the results of new atheism was a certain number of atheists that I would describe as angry.

Angry atheists would also insult the person who held religious beliefs. I do not share many individual atheists’ fundamental disdain for individuals that happen to be religious. This is assuming they leave me alone. Many people I like are religious or spiritual, and I don’t see the value in criticising them personally for their false (?) beliefs. I am all for critique bad ideas, but personal insults are not helpful or compassionate.

I have no problem with others as long as they do not impose their values upon me.

Anti-theism is the view that theism is bad. Hitchens was famously anti-theistic. I agree that some theologies are bad, and I will not hold back from criticising a bad idea if there is one. I am therefore anti-theistic, if the theology produces bad outcomes/actions/will, but I am not against theism necessarily. Theism sometimes produces good outcomes. (Think about the charity some individuals do due to their theistic beliefs; think about the murders that are not committed by reformed killers due to their theistic beliefs).

Whether theism on the whole produces good or bad, I will leave to the scholars (Hitchens makes a good case that it overwhelmingly evil). Regardless, theism is here and many theists exist! I am not against theistic people per se. A theist’s ideas that do not get imposed on me is none of my business. I have no desire to inform a theist that (I think) they believe false ideas.

What about secular morality?

My atheistic values led me towards a value for secularism and skeptical thinking, which has remained a constant in my value system ever since. Around the time of my secular and New-Atheist awakening, I became interested in ideas like secular morality: I didn’t know it at the time, but I was flirting with positions like ethical naturalism, which seems a common idea amongst atheists.

As with most the New-Atheists, I do accept that notions of pro-social behaviour evolved among our social species through natural selection. As such, we don’t need to believe in God to be “good” (behaving in a way that is pro-social). We are going to do that which we desire, regardless of whether we believe in God, and we humans desire –on average– that which is conducive to the survival of our species. Of course there may be individuals that only do “good” things because they believe in God (and thank God for their belief!), but the point remains: actions are determined by desires themselves, atheism won’t result in “bad” acts necessarily.

The New-Atheists go further, however. Beyond the claim that we humans use “moral language” and make up “moral rules”, which can be described and explained by evolution. New-Atheists implicitly (and often explicitly) claim objective moral obligations.

A short aside rejecting secular morality

Sam Harris claims that there could be a empirically definable “correct” way to act/live/be in order to accomplish human-flourishing/eudaimonia, but can this way of acting be called “moral”? Even if there was a specific set of actions that were conducive to human-flourishing/eudaimonia for individuals or society, it begs the question: “why value this outcome?” It might seem imprudent not to value human-flourishing, but what makes it necessary? Either: 1) it is necessary by nature of there being no ability but to value human-flourishing; or 2) there are metaphysical consequences for not valuing human-flourishing. If Harris is not claiming either of these two things, then under what definition can he call these acts “moral”?

For point two: if the consequences of not being “moral” are not metaphysical, but merely social, or otherwise empirical, then we are free to choose to be “immoral”: there is no obligation to be moral. And for point one: this is not the case since we see examples of people that do not value human-flourishing, and therefore it is possible to not value them. Without being obligatory in a metaphysical sense, “morality” is purely opinions, assertions, desires, and wills.

To me, the New-Atheist desire to build a secular morality is partially sincere and partially in defence of religious critiques of atheism’s inherent immorality. I am not an ethical naturalist. Atheists, and all people, seem to share anthropocentric views and are driven by a desire to externalise their subjective values into universal truths. Afterall, what imperative is there to comply with “moral” rules or traits (once discovered) unless they are externally true? If none, then they are simply values that one prefers, and this is unacceptable to the fragile human ego. Nothing is different about this “secular morality” than with regular moral realism.

Existential questions persist

While, I can articulate these critiques now, not long ago I was still confusingly concerned with questions like: “what is the meaning of life?”, “how can I justify having values if none objectively exist?”, and “what should I do?” While peers and books gave me the following answers: “there is no objective meaning to life, the question is not one that has an objective answer”, “you can’t justify your values beyond simply asserting them personally — there is nothing external to your human mind to appeal to”, and “the question is what will you do, not what should you do”, for a time, these answers left me unsatisfied.

To moral nihilism

I have, in time, come to accept them. Unfortunately, that is all there is. My initial dissatisfaction with moral nihilism, I believe, was due to an unfair expectation that I had previously been given: that there should be some meaning to life, objective values, and external obligations.

This situation reminds me of the realisation that Santa Claus does not exist; Santa doesn’t exist, even if –as an adult– you would wish that presents would arrive at your house once a year for free. This doesn’t mean you can’t have presents on Christmas day, it just means that you just have to buy your own (and presents for others, presumably). I wanted to have objective meaning, but this desire was unrealistic. Like a spoilt child, I had been given the promise of candy everyday, only to have it taken away one day. I felt a loss; I felt that I deserved my candy. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been given it in the first place? Was it ever beneficial to me?

While I might be predisposed to desire an objective meaning to life, or to have my values be backed up by an external force (like God) that condones them, or to know what I ought to do at any given moment, I will not hold ideas that I intellectually believe to be false. I want my opinions to accord to the facts, rather than believe that the facts adhere to my beliefs.

Amoralism

I consider myself an amoralist. The word is synonymous with moral nihilism, but it avoids some unnecessary confusion. Amoralism is the rejection of morality as a thesis: I operate my life without the premise that morality is a real, objectively true, and mind-independent thing that obligates humans to specific behaviour or character trait.

When I say I am a nihilist, people ask me “Why don’t you kill yourself?”, or if I am being hyperbolic, or attention-seeking. As a moral nihilist, and existential nihilist, I don’t want to kill myself, and I am not being hyperbolic when I say that life is objectively meaningless (“In what sense would life be mind-independently meaningful?”). As far as attention-seeking, I’d rather get to the point, and discuss the ideas themselves. Amoralism avoids these detours of conversation and unnecessary confusions, and allows me to label the views that I currently hold sincerely.

Power-Nihilism: A Case for Moral & Political Nihilism – (Book Review)

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James Theodore Stillwell III’s “Power Nihilism: A Case for Moral & Political Nihilism”

The word nihilism is thrown around as an insult, and either deliberately or ignorantly used to describe some sort of depressed, teen, pseudo-philosophical attention-seeker. This is a shame because there is a set of ideas that does embrace the label “nihilism” that is philosophically sound, life-affirming, mature, and individualistic. Immediately the word nihilism will push people away. Perhaps it should, but not for the reasons one might expect.

Be afraid of this book if you have an emotional need to believe in objectively true moral structures by which to guide your life. Whether atheist, theist, or otherwise, this book will challenge any notion the reader might have of objective morality. (Watch out new atheists, Stillwell (and other philosophers of amorality) have a philosophically sound response to your desire to hold onto morality without God!)

This book is quite easy to read. It is not a wordy, academic piece. Almost anyone could read along and follow. The book is rather short, you could easily read this in a day or two if you tried. This is part of the value of this work, without meaning criticism, this is like a “Dummies guide to nihilism”. It is short, informative, accurate, and forceful. If the reader wants to go further I would suggest Richard Garner’s “Beyond Morality”, Joel Mark’s “Ethics without Morals”, or any of the works mentioned in “Power-Nihilism”.

The author, a rare type of autodidact, having deep knowledge of the beliefs and ideologies that he refutes (Christian morality, for example), has ventured into territory that few will go willingly. The style of writing is obviously influenced by Ragnar Redbeard (pseudonymous author of the infamous book “Might is right: survival of the fittest”). James slips in and out of this inflammatory style, which by design makes for powerful prose.

Throughout the book, Stillwell’s opinions on various issues becomes clear. The readers must be careful to recognise the philosophy of power-nihilism from the author’s application of it. In itself, power-nihilism does not assert any specific values. One could even read this work, agree, and assert a will-to-power to being a member of the ‘slave’ morality class (a set of values that the author clearly despises). I suspect that most people that do understand this work will, on the other hand, take from it an inspirational message to be bold, brave, and life-affirming, asserting values of ‘master’ morality (like the author).

To be clear, unlike other reviews on amazon that I have read, this work is not racist, and does not discuss race at all. One could read this work, and assert racist values, or one could read this work and assert ‘equality’ as a value. The danger that this work presents, is that there is no objective value to be asserted, and instead, a certain type of person (the power-nihilist) will assert their own values.

There is gold contained within this book, but it might not be apparent to all who read it. To fully appreciate this book you would have to be truly open to revisiting your most fundamental assumptions. The person that understands and benefits most from this book would be willing to truly eschew modern morality as a given, and to be brave enough to assert an individualistic subjective framework instead.

Having read a few books on meta-ethics and nihilism specifically, I will keep this book close at hand, as a quick reference work, its value is in its brevity, simplicity, clarity, and force.

The author’s website is found here: http://www.power-nihilism.education/

The book can be purchased there.

Ethics is not the same as morality.

What is ethics? What is morality?

Ethics is the study of reasonable obligations: the study of “what we/one ought to do” or “how we/one ought to live”. Ethical answers state what to rationally do. The central question of ethics is: “how ought I/we rationally act?” This can even be simplified as, “how ought I/we act?” due to the logical necessity of using rationality to answer “how” questions. While there is a difference between using “we” in ethical statements, which implies normative prescription for all, and “I” or “one” which leaves the prescription for all vaguely unspecified, for short, I will use both interchangeably throughout.

Morality is too often confounded with ethics due to the assumption (which most people make) that we ought to be moral. The problem with this, however, is that it begs the question: “what is moral? what is morality? what are the characteristics of moral properties? and how do you know what they are?” Without answering these questions, the study of morality is meaningless. With the difficult meta-ethical questions still being debated among philosophers, it suffices to say, that most people assume the central question of ethics to be: “how ought I act so that I am acting morally?” But this is a definition of ethics that is not starting at the essential, fundamental question of ethics itself. And that makes a difference.

And to anyone that thinks it is fair to assume that being “morally obliged” is necessary in the definition of ethics itself, or that it is equivalent to being “rationally obliged”, I would protest. Being a moral anti-realist, I would challenge anyone that has claimed that morality exists, to provide evidence for it. Evidence, sufficient enough to persuade me away from my (default) position on the moral-skeptic fence. I feel that this is fair, given that on other occasions, the existence of entities (such as God, aliens, or green kangaroos) require that the person making the claim should be able to back it up with empirical evidence and (if necessary) deductive reason.

The nature of ethical questions.

Immanuel Kant formulated the concept of a categorical imperative: an unconditional imperative that ought to be obeyed universally. As opposed to hypothetical imperatives that take the form: “if is intended/wanted/desired, then do y“, categorical imperatives take the form: “do x”. Note that there are no “if-clauses” in a categorical imperative, no implied consequences, and the command is given to all people. Many types of moral-realists think of ethics being the process of uncovering categorical imperatives, i.e. asking “how ought we act?”, without proposing consequences, or conditional “if-clauses”, however I believe that all answers to ethical question require a conditional “if-clause” lest they be without consequence and therefore meaningless.

Morality and ethics is not in the same business. Ethics is one step prior to the moralist assumption “to be moral”. Ethics asks a more fundamental question, necessitating only rational deduction. Moralists smuggle in their “if-clause”, and assert morality as a virtue, hoping no one is the wiser. This is deceptive, and –as we shall conclude– like anyone else that asserts an “if-clause” it should be justified candidly.

Or else what?

At its heart, moralists (those that say we ought to act morally), appeal to consequence. For example, a moralist that says, “you ought to give to the poor” means, “you ought to give to the poor or else you won’t be acting morally”. So, I ask: “or else what?” Without an answer to my question, there seems to be no reason to act morally. Perhaps the moralist will try to restate themselves substituting “morally” for words like “correctly”, “rightly”, “justly”, or otherwise. In every single case, my response will be the same: “or else what?”

Even an appeal to God (or technically the consequences that derive from God existing and my non-compliance with morality) dissolve when the burden of proof for God’s existence is placed on the one presuming his existence. To put a final stake in the chest of categorical imperatives, I’ll quote from James Stillwell III:

The fact of God’s existence would still be insufficient to derive … an ought. God’s existence would be just another descriptive fact about existence like rocks, dying stars, and deadly cosmic radiation and no prescription could be derived from this fact. At best, like his opponents he is reduced to hypothetical imperatives and [consequence]. For example. If I don’t want to burn in Hell I ought do y and not do x….

…Another tactic I see theists use is to claim that one ought or ought not do x, y and z because as creator God “owns” everything and he created you with a purpose. The problem though is that ownership and purposes are just concepts…. If I created a knife to kill, one could easily assign it a new purpose (slicing carrots). Purposes are contingent upon individual minds. Purposing is what minds do. … I may have the power/ability to do what I want with my [creations] but that’s not a right, it would just be a fact. And from the fact that one can do x one cannot derive one ought do x….

…Now perhaps [Dr. William Lane Craig] would argue that God is holy, loving, and just by his very nature, and that he is the very locus of “goodness”. But as we have already seen … he is just defining God as “good” etc. He basically claims that God is good because he is good which is hopelessly circular and thus meaningless.

Since there cannot be any “ought” without consequence, all that remains for ethics is the question: “how ought I rationally act?” Let’s ask “or else what?” of this central question. It would seem like an odd position, to refute the existence of morality and propose that the central question of ethics is: “how ought I irrationally act?” Such a question does not suit rational response nor enquiry. Logically, answers to this can be rational or irrational. If an answer is irrational, it necessarily does not answer the question, hence there are no irrational answers to this central question. Rational answers to this question would themselves be irrational if they were valid. It seems, then, to be self defeating to concern ourselves with how to act irrationally. The “how” negates any possible meaningful sense of irrationality that can logically follow. That is, “how” implies that rational, deductive logic, is to be applied to the problem. In other words, we must proceed with rational enquiry into the central question of ethics or we cannot proceed at all.

If, as the moralists presume, we ought to act morally, does this mean we ought not act rationally? Not at all. Different moralists could hold different views on this question, but it seems conceivable that moralists might say that: “we ought to act morally whether that is rational or not”, or that, “we ought to act morally, which is itself always rational”, or even say that, “we ought to act rationally despite what is moral or immoral”. In each case, morality is a term that begs definition. And so, to ethical questions, I would propose completely amoral solutions. Note that I do not propose immoral solutions (that would presume moral properties exist and that moral statements are meaningful), but “a”-moral solutions.

What is ethical?

So, how can we answer the question of ethics without invoking entities (such as moral properties or their derivative meaningless moral statements) for which we have no empirical evidence? The answer lies in something that we have already covered: “if-clauses”, but before we explore the answer, let’s understand the fundamental nature of ethical enquiry.

The central question of ethics (“how ought I rationally act?”) presumes a necessity to be rational. As argued earlier, logically, there are only rational answers to “how” questions, but there is no necessary requirement to ask ethical questions in the first place. We can only say that to ask a “how” question itself, is to implicitly desire to use rational deduction. So if one chooses to engage in ethics –in trying to discover the answer to an ethical question (whether amorally or morally/immorally)– one is necessarily desiring to (and limited to) using rational deduction.

It seems conceivable that one might never ask ethical questions, in fact, it seems blatantly obvious that most of us do not ask the question at all times. It is strictly not necessary to ask: “how ought I rationally act”. So, two features of ethical study appear: it necessitates rational deduction, and it need not be the case that all acts are rationally considered in advance. In other words, sometimes people are irrational. So, if you want to be ethical, then you must be rational, but what else must you be?

Ethics only requires reason.

There are no other necessary implicit “if-clauses” other than rationality itself when answering ethical questions. “How ought I rationally act?” does not necessarily contain the conditions: “if I am to be moral”, “if I am to be liked”, or any: “if I am to be x“. In other words, any additional conditions (other than to be rational), can only be justified by their asserter. For example, if you choose to re-frame the central question of ethics as, “how ought I act if I am to be happy”, you have added a conditional (“if I am to be happy”) which is just as unnecessary a question as the central question of ethics itself is. In other words, one need not ask this question, nor does one need to ask “how ought I rationally act?” One can ask, “how ought I act if I am to be happy” or not; there is no obligation to ask it (or any question at all). Ethics only requires reason, but you can answer ethical questions in a way that follows from however you choose to assert (formulate) them.

If one does ask ,”how ought I act if I am to be happy”, this begs the question: “why be happy?” to which there can be no answer except for, “I want to be happy”. This is what it means for the asserter to justify their “if-clause” conditions by themselves. They assert the hypothetical imperative as their own, and face up to the fact that they created it. There is nothing else to which they can appeal the additional conditional “if-clause”. If we ask the asserter, “or else what?” in order to determine the consequences of their failing to act according to their obligation to be happy, they can only say, “then I will not be happy”. To the asserter, there is no objective obligation to be happy. The obligation to be happy is subjective, dependent wholly on their mind and desire to impose a hypothetical imperative upon themselves.

That is all there is with regards to ethics. Hypothetical imperatives are all we can fall back on.

References

Stillwell III, J. (2015). Power-nihilism: A case for moral & political nihilism. I-Theist Books. NH: Keene.