Stefan Molyneux's failed debate with a moral nihilist

“Universal preferable behaviour is behaviour that can be preferred by all people at all times in all places,” so states Stefan Molyneux, in his recent debate with J. F Gariepy titled, “[…] Universal Ethics vs Moral Nihilism!”

The debate ran a total of almost two hours, but I believe the crux of the video can be gleaned by being told that Gariepy failed to adequately defend the (default) moral nihilist position in response to Molyneux’s core argument, which I surmise here:

If [they] tell me there’s no such thing as universally preferable behaviour, then what they are telling me to do is to, “stop saying that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour,” and … they’re saying “stop it because it is objectively false to claim that there is such a thing as universally preferable behaviour.”

Now, if you say to someone that it is universally preference behavior that you stop arguing for universally preferable behaviour, well that of course is a self-detonating statement. It is a statement that falsifies itself in the very utterance. So if someone comes to me and says, “there is no such thing as universally preferable behaviour and therefore you should stop arguing for it” or they come to me and say “universally preferable behaviour is invalid,” or “your theory is invalid and you should stop saying it,” what are they saying?

Well they are saying that there is a universal standard by which ideas are judged, and [Stefan] you ideas fall short of that universal standard.

They’re also saying that truth is infinitely preferable to falsehood. …

[Now if you accept the universally preferable behaviour theory] … you find out that rape, theft, assault and murder can never be universally preferable behaviours. In other words, we have a theory of ethics that validates the four major bands that exist in every reasonable moral system.

Stefan Molyneux at timestamp 15:20 – 18:00 in

And so, with this argument, Molyneux won over the audience. I would have responded this this argument differently, and I’ll let you be the judge as to whether I would have done any better an Gariepy..

Allow me to take the place of Molyneux’s hypothetical debater:

  • Me: Universally preferable behaviour theory is wrong/false/in error
  • Stefan: So you’re saying that I shouldn’t say universally preferable behaviour theory is correct? Well, that’s a contradiction — that is itself a universally preferable behaviour!
  • Me: No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t say UPB theory is correct, I am merely making a declarative statement –making a truth claim that UPB theory is false
  • Stefan: But you are saying that people shouldn’t say that UPB theory is correct, hence you are unable to deny UPB theory, because you are universally preferring the truth be told
  • Me: Again, no. A declarative is not an imperative statement. I’m not necessarily claiming that you ought not promote UPB theory, when I say UPB theory is wrong. Once you concede that an imperative statement does not necessarily derive from a declarative one, your argument that “any rejection of UPB theory is self-detonating,” itself being necessary self-deflates. You cannot justify UPB theory from the existence of truth claims about it. To put this in the clearest way: Uttering that UPB theory is false, does not establish a contradiction, thereby making UPB theory necessarily true.

That ol’ guillotine

The debate started with each giving their best steelman, of the other’s position. This was interesting because it gave each the opportunity to show they understood each other’s position, that they were acting in good faith, and highlight to the audience any misunderstandings each had.

Despite characterising Gariepy’s argument primarily as one that relies on Hume’s guillotine (we cannot derive obligations from facts), Molyneux himself crosses the is-ought gap when he states his hypothetical debater is making an “ought-claim” when they are merely making an “is-claim.” Specifically, he conflates a declarative statement with an imperative one.

There is a part of me that suspects that Molyneux knows this. He is too logical and Libertarian, not to feel the muddiness between these premises in his argument. (But then again libertarians do have trouble with the fundamental crux of ethics).


Stefan’s concept of universality being ‘across all people at all times in all places,’ doesn’t make clear whether it means across empirical human history, or independent of human existence itself. What does he precisely mean by the “objective moral standards” when he refers to them throughout the debate? Does he mean standards that exist independent of any human opinion, across all the space and time in the universe, or rather does he mean “empirically objective” moral standards (i.e. demonstrably common moral opinions across different cultures in this history on this Earth).

In what way are “rape, theft, assault and murder” universal? Molyneux would point out that these acts cannot be universalised according to some arbitrary preference for Kantian rational ethical systems, and hence are examples of immoral behaviour. But, to spell it out, why does Molyneux get to prefer universalisation over, say, random preferences, and thereby claim that universalisability is the nature and charactistic of ethics proper? His implicit assumption that universalisability is “good” is itself begging the question, and circular. “X is moral because it is universalisable; universalisability is moral because it excludes rape, theft, assault, and murder.”

Of course, if you suspect that morality is charactised by universal, egalitarian preferences, all your intellectual abilities will be geared towards rationalising such assumptions. Suffice to say, a tyrant, who did not think of himself as an equal with others, but above others, would be dumbfounded with the presumption that morality is characterised by playing along with rules that make sense and are fair for everyone.

Cherry picking norms as he likes, Molyneux also benefits because when cultures, or individuals agree with his set of moral rules, as he can point and say: “See how morality is expressed in nature!” Well, Hume disagrees. Molyneux can also dismiss any culture or individual that breaks his preferred norms as “bad” people thereby presenting his unfalsifiable theory all the while wasting our time proving nothing at all.

Let’s get imperative

Let’s go further, though. So far, I’ve said that I am not necessarily making an imperative statement about UPB theory by merely claiming it to be false. In such a case, Molyneux contends that someone could exist in which they believe UPB theory to be false, but by not verbalising it, much like Shroedinger’s cat, Molyneux would not know they held that belief, and hence the UPB theory is never verbally negated. Well, despite the fact that a theory is True (or false) regardless of whether anyone verbalises their beliefs about facts, I am willing to maintain the position of a moral nihilist while telling Molyneux: stop saying UPB theory is true.

How is it that I can make an imperative statement, telling some others what to do, when I myself hold there to be no universally preferable behaviour (or in terms I find more rigorous: mind-independent objective “goods”). Am I now not preferring my imperative universally? No. This is something that Gariepy attempted (but failed) to articulate well: I need not be restricted to making universalisable imperatives –I may command as I please. (Whether I am obeyed and my imperatives fulfilled is another matter completely).

Molyneux, may stop me there and say, that such imperatives are not moral, being merely the ravings of a would-be dictator, but then again — why does his imperative (“Morality must be universalisable”) trump my imperatives?

Ethics is characterised by obeying authority, where a legitimate commander is a subjective mind making imperatives by threat and ability to enact force. Now, before you close that tab and write me off as a crass Nietzschean or worse — a Redbeardian— hear me out one moment longer. This authority may be a loving God, or merciless thug, but the mechanics are the same.

Instead of only criticising Molyneux’s argument, I present a concise case for moral nihilism:

Moral nihilism

Moral statements such as “is is wrong to kill” can be framed as obligations, e.g. “Do not kill.” As such, morality is constituted by imperatives, i.e. commandments. Therefore, in response to any given imperative, the natural question is, “or else what?” Whether an imperative will be obeyed (or not) is determined by the empirical nature of the authority making the commandment.

For example, if there is a ruling Monarch, an absolute sovereign, God, or even just a bully at school that can physically coerce you to obey them (whether under duress or gleeful compliance), then the likelihood is that the imperative will be acting as a legitimate authority for and hence obeyed. …This is the nature of morality.

We get confused about this simple imperative nature of ethics because, through language, we take imperatives like “Don’t kill” and abstract them through forms like: “killing is bad”, “it is good not to kill”, finally into declarative forms that reference the abstract concept of “Good” itself and perennially philosophise over vestigial questions like ,”What is the Good?” — all while forgetting that morality is rendered meaningless without a tangible connection to physical ultimatums.

In the absence of morality, there is only ethics in its purest form: “what should we do?” If we are asking this question, we already concede rationality, and must answer this however best the facts align to our desires and particular situation. In short, whenever anyone uses moral words, ask: what does that mean? I just do what I must.

Defense of Amorality pt.2

In the previous post, I covered the first two sections of Joel Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. In that post, metaphysical morality was defined, which leads us now to ask…

Does Morality Exist?

Since many people do believe metaphysical morality exists, Marks embraces the burden of disproof, adopting the method of “inference to the best explanation”:

It is rational to believe in x if and only if x is an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. The argument for amorality is then simply that morality is not an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. … All of the familiar phenomena that we associate with morality … can be accounted for without, more plausibly than by, postulating the existence of morality.

pg. 16-17

Marks offers three potential explanations for why different people believe morality exists:

  1. we know God’s commands
  2. we know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself
  3. we know “Darwinian morality”

Elaboration of explanation one

We know God’s commands.

Explanation 1

Explanation one assumes the existence of a God or gods, and proposes that our feelings or intuitions about “right” and “wrong” correspond to God’s commandments. In this conception, God creates “good” and “evil” in the act of approving and disapproving respectively. Such commandments become moral obligations. Simply put, “good” is whatever God commands.

Refutations of explanation one

Marks’ refutes explanation one by showing that it relies on explanation two, which in turn can be rejected. So, assuming we know God’s commands we can ask: how do we know God’s commands are to be obeyed (i.e. how do we know that they are valid imperatives)? Marks claims most people answer this with another intuition, that “God is good.” But how do people know God is good?

Marks refers to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Euthryphro to point out that most people believe that “good” is external to God. Whether most believers believe this is contentious, as many believe that “good” is internal to God as the highest, supreme law-giver. Regardless, “good” Marks tackles the idea that good is external to God. I’ll address the other possibility after.

External good

This position is that God is good by virtue of acknowledging external “goodness” as “good”. That is that God could condone and command “evil”, but sides with “good” and this is what merits God as “good” himself. To be clear, this means that:

  • God’s commands are good and
  • these commands are valid imperatives because
  • God is good because
  • God recognised the good as such which
  • Exists outside of God (this point is explanation two)

Before stating Marks’ main reason for rejecting explanation one, I’ll just raise one question about this believer’s logic. If whatever God commands is intuitively good from our perspective, how do we know that God is not commanding “evil”? We may intuit God’s commands as good, but what if our intuitions are backward? To assume God wouldn’t command evil is to assume that “good” is internal to God (which relies on the other possible belief about God’s character; see below).

Marks argues: if good is external to God, why does it matter what he commands — could we not just have feelings/intuitions about the external goodness itself? In such a case, we might be safer to skip the “middle man” and believe in external/natural goodness directly (a la explanation two).**

Internal good

Marks does not contend with the intuition that “goodness” is internal to divinity (possibly because it is rejected by his atheism outright). So, I’ll do that here. If by definition, God is literally “goodness” itself (whatever this actually means), and therefore “goodness” is not external to divinity, God’s commands are “good” because they are an expression of “goodness”. Such a conception of God would sidestep the need for explanation two, but begs the question: does God exist? More on this shortly.

Another approach would be to concede that God’s commandments are good, but ask: why choose God’s subjective opinions as good and not some other being’s subjective opinions? (Surely it’s not the act of commanding that creates “good”, or could I personally make commandments and thereby establish the “good”? Or if this seems too absurd of a question, going back to Socrates, which god’s commandments are “good”?) One response might be that, God’s commands alone are good because God is the supreme authority in the very real sense that God has ultimate power, down to physical forces, and thus the ultimate ability to enforce imperatives. Such a God would indeed be irresistible, and his might would make right, but again it begs the question: does God exist?***

Having assumed atheism in this argument for amorality, Marks need say no more before moving on to explanation two. But before we do, let’s assess Marks’ “hard atheism”.

Hard atheism?

While Marks never argues for atheism in this book, it is a premise of his argument for moral nihilism. While, I would argue that atheism is not a view that strictly requires justification, the lack of an argument does potentially limit Marks’ argument for moral nihilism to his atheist readers. This depends though on whether his readers believe that the existence of God is required for the existence of morality.

There are a few combinations of views regarding God’s existence and the implications that this has for morality:

  1. Many believers in God claim that without God, there could be no morality.
  2. A relatively recent community known as the New Atheists, disagree, and hold that morality can exist without God or gods. (What they disagree on is the nature of morality).
  3. Marks agrees with the believers in God that “without God, there is no morality” (Marks, 2010). The crucial difference being that he accepts moral nihilism as a logical result of atheism, unlike the New Atheists who hold on to imperatives without a commander. He calls this view Hard Atheism, which is the idea that atheism implies moral nihilism.

But consider that the existence of a God does not necessary imply that morality exists: God may be an entity that created the universe but not anything that is “good” or “evil” (regardless of whether “good” and “evil” are conceived of as his commandments or some mysterious aspect of metaphysical reality). No doubt, it would seem more plausible for a deist rather than a theist to accept this, but in such a case, moral nihilism might still be compelling to some believers in (an impersonal) God.

Elaborating explanation two

We know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself.

Explanation 2

Returning now to the reasons why people feel that morality exists, the second explanation holds that “good” exists, external to God, in the properties of nature. In this conception of morality, “good” is objective, and independent of any subjective opinion (even God’s). Hence “good” is an actual property of things in the universe, and natural forces somehow create categorical imperatives.

To be clear, here I’m not talking about certain empirical facts implying certain behaviours IF we have certain goals (a la hypothetical oughts), I am talking about a morality characterised by commands without a commander. That is, some queer property of reality leaps across the boundary of objective reality, and has implications for human behaviour.

If “good” properties were merely physical forces that could cause natural “consequences”, e.g. gravity causing a fall, then this characterisation of morality amounts to Natural Law, and fails to be morality as has been defined in the book.

Natural Law, e.g. the laws of nature are not categorical imperatives because they cannot be disobeyed and are always obeyed, and it is pointless to speak of ethics (the study of what we ought to do) when immorality is impossible. Furthermore, imperatives cannot be derived from natural facts (a la Hume's Is-Ought Gap). For example, "gravity attracts mass therefore it is good that gravity attracts mass" does not follow.

Explanation two’s conception of “good” is more metaphysically mysterious than that of explanation one because, once the existence of God as a supreme authority is granted (as per explanation one), morality is simply the doctrine of his subjective opinion. In a sense, this subjective opinion is objective because it is outside human minds, and it is absolutely true in so far as God’s subjective opinion is settled. And if God were to change his commandments over time, they would be “good” so long as he commands them. In such a conception of good, morality’s imperatives become meaningful twofold: 1) because there is a commander that commands, and consequences that can follow immorality, and 2) moral statements can be true or false (i.e. moral cognitivism is true).

Refuting explanation two

Explanation two claims that “good” is known to exist in the natural world. Marks states that the ‘problem with … is… [the] lacking [of] an adequate conceptualisation of… metaphysical morality.’ That is, how exactly does morality manifest in the world? If moral facts are in the fabric of the universe, how do they work upon or impact upon human action, intention, and manifest as consequences? This natural morality would have truly mysterious mechanisms. It could create moral obligations from natural properties itself.

Moral nihilism holds that the words good and evil “do not describe any actual properties of anything,” [italics mine] (Marks, 2010). Recall that morality is characterised by categorical imperatives*, so nothing about metaphysical morality could be observed: empirical methods could not measure that which has no consequences. Moral imperatives (which are obligations), cannot be observed directly, only indirectly by their consequences.

Second, Marks points out that morality without the existence of a God’s commandments, makes moral imperatives “commands without a commander”, making the concept itself unintelligible. Without an authority to provide consequences (which could be observable), guilt or motivation to be moral remains just a feeling without justification.

Thus the intuition that we infer good from the universe itself is without support. At best, moral facts do exist but are empirically unverifiable, leaving only an unjustifiable feeling -but not knowledge-, leaving us no better off than if morality did not exist. Our feelings might as well be that “killing people is good,” we wouldn’t know who’s feelings corresponded to external the “good” (or God’s commands -how do we know if God exists?).

In regards to morality (of any categorical kind) and divinity, I am agnostic (I don’t claim to know whether they exist or not), but I’m unable to deny their existence. That said: I do believe that the default/initial view is to not have any belief positively in either Gods or moral facts. But beyond this, I do not think that natural morality (commands without a commander/explanation 2) could be justified.

Explanation three

We know “Darwinian morality”.

Explanation 3

Darwinian morality is the belief in and/or adherence to behaviours and attitudes that puts us at some evolutionary advantage. In this conception “good” is what empirically supports survival of the species. This is pure empirical organic desire, measurable by actions of humans, just like other wills or subjects of a life. (For example, the belief that “killing people is wrong” is observable by its widespread condemnation, aversion, and punishment).

Explanation three explains why people feel that they are in possession of moral facts, even if this reduces morality to preferences derived through natural selection.

Thus using “inference to the best explanation”, Marks concludes that it is rational to believe that people feel they know morality due to Darwinian morality rather than explanation one or two.

Next time…

So far Marks has defined metaphysical morality, and argued that people’s belief in it is mistaken. He argued that Darwinian morality better explains why people feel metaphysical morality exists than intuitions of God’s commands, or natural sources of good. In the next of this series, Marks defends amorality in practice (moral abolitionism). Would amorality be viable?

*Morality has the quality of being obligatory without any prerequisites, i.e. there is no place for if-clauses to derive morality's imperative nature, i.e. the consequences of not obliging moral commandments apply without there being any requirement to accept morality's authority, i.e. the scope of moral commands is infinite and all encompassing, without your assent, and nothing is outside the reach of morality's authority. In short: morality is characterised by categorical imperatives.
** Or is this the function of God? I can imagine this would be an interesting theological argument for why God is good: He created the universe with "Goodness" in it, and commands it to us, because without his commands (which we can instinctively feel), we would not know what is "good" because we do not instinctively know external "good".
***This is the point I personally agree to fully with my Christian friends: if God exists, and has the ability and willingness to apply unstoppable force behind his commands, then God's commands are "good" in a real and actually very conceivable way. For categorical imperatives to exist, the most likely set of facts, in my opinion, would be that there exists an impersonal God which has "good" internal to itself. Such a conception of God could make categorical imperatives meaningful, specifically due to the supreme authority he holds over nature, and the ability to control his property.

In Defense of Amorality pt.1

Marks, J. (2013). Ethics without Morals: In defense of amorality. Routledge, NY: New York. 

Joel Marks’ Ethics without Morality: In Defense of Amorality is a book that is special to me. Not only did it improve my understanding of meta-ethics and specifically moral nihilism, but a particular part of the book spoke to me so directly, that I felt the need to email Joel*. I am grateful to have enjoyed his correspondence ever since.

The book argues for an amoralism of two prongs: moral nihilism and moral abolitionism. The first is the denial of metaphysical morality, the objective, mind-independent morality, which would make moral claims meaningful (true or false). That is the specific concept of “categorical imperatives governing human behaviour” (email, November 2019).

The second prong is Marks’ preference for moral abolitionism i.e. against empirical morality. That is morality as it can be measured by psychology, sociology, anthropology etc., for example beliefs about morality or behaviours that result from moral beliefs.

In this series of posts, I want to present Marks’ main arguments for these views fairly concisely. I do this because others may be interested in this topic and also because I suspect that few people outside academic or philosophical circles have read this book, which I feel is a shame.

All unattributed quotes in this series are from Marks’ book and from the relevant chapter being discussed. I will organise my posts according to the chapter titles from the book, of which this post will cover the first two. The sections are:

  • Introduction/Acknowledgments
  • What is morality?
  • Does morality exist?
  • Would Amorality be Viable?
  • Might Amorality be Preferable?
  • Is Amorality Just another way of being Moral?
  • A Case study in applied amorality: How Shall we treat other animals?
  • What is Ethics?
From Amazon: Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He received the B.A. in psychology from Cornell University and the M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. Marks has written numerous articles for professional journals and hundreds of op-eds and columns for newspapers and magazines on ethics, astronomy, and other topics. Since 2000 Marks has been a regular columnist for Philosophy Now magazine. Marks is currently a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His Website is 


Marks was a firm believer in metaphysical morality for most of his life. “I had never been agnostic but always a true believer [in morality]. … Moreality is a universe in which moral right and wrong are as real as chairs and gravity. Even if everybody … did not believe in morality, in moreality it would exist, just as surely as the earth is spherical and even if everybody believed it was disc-shaped.” But after his professional retirement as a professor of philosophy, specialising in normative ethics no less, he has an “anti-epiphany” and committed a philosophical u-turn. The turn began when his friend Wendell Wallach commented that “… moral theories are first and foremost intuitions.”

Marks’ atheism is a key part of his argument and biography. His starting position, for our purposes here, was that of an atheistic secular Kantian ethicist, holding the ethic: “Never to treat anyone merely as a means, but rather as an end in themselves.” During a discussion about God with a minister, he realised morality is like God.”[Belief in God and morality are …] both simply an interaction between some non-supernatural reality external to the individual and the emotional response of the individual. God was the universe responded to with awe; right and wrong were human actions responded to with approval or disapproval.”

Being an atheist, Marks sees belief in god as mistaken. Therefore once thinking that morality is like God, the belief in moreality (objective morality) is likewise mistaken. At this point, Marks’ conclusion was that morality is essentially relative, but “it did not take long … to draw the further conclusion that a relative morality is tantamount to no morality at all … Thus, [he] began to speak of ‘amorality.’ “

In Marks’ own words: “… the position[s] … I defend herein has been variously called moral skepticism, moral anti-realism, moral error-theory, moral nihilism, moral eliminativism, and moral abolitionism…” This set of terms combines various distinct concepts, including he two already clarified above (moral nihilism and moral abolitionism). Amoralism is then a position of various independent concepts that Marks defends regarding metaphysical and empirical morality.

Note that unlike others who deny moral realism, Marks favours removing moral ideas and language from human discourse (moral abolitionism), and does not advocate moral fictionalism (the advocacy of morality as a social institution despite a disbelief in morality as a categorical imperative). As a moral abolitionist, Marks is joined by Richard Garner and others, unlike Richard Joyce who is known for advocating moral fictionalism.

What is Morality?

As a necessity, Marks begins by defining precisely what is being talked about. Though there are many definitions and contextual uses of the words and concepts relating to “morality,” Marks defines it how it seems intuitive to him and how he believes most people think of it.

Marks’ characterisation of morality is as a “set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions. … universal, unchanging, [an] absolute authority in matters of human behaviour.” Morality, unlike criminal laws, does not vary from place, time, or culture, “it emanates from an unchanging and univocal font … of authority and power”. It is a moral law, like a scientific law, except acting on us indirectly through the will, as opposed to directly like gravity.

To illustrate morality’s “categorical” character, Marks compares moral commands to grammatical commands. Paraphrasing Marks’ example, the command “Grammatically speaking, it is right to capitalise proper nouns’, needs its preface (“Grammatically speaking”) or risks overstepping its usefulness and accuracy. Moral commands on the other hand, function as intended without similar prefaces: “[Morally speaking,] it is wrong to kill babies.” This highlights how morality, unlike other practices (like grammar) does not have a limited scope.

This can be expressed as: there are no contingencies for moral commands to be authoritative. That is, while we can always rephrase non-moral commands in the form of hypotheticals (“If you want X, then do Y”, e.g. “If you want to be grammatical, capitalise proper nouns”), moral commands are categorical, and by their very character exist without if-clauses.

[Morality’s] chief characteristic is that it is required of us, regardless of our desires. … My conception of morality is as the highest telos, by which I mean that the morally right thing to do is supposed to be what we should do … “all things considered”. Thus, the moral should trumps all others, and at all times and everywhere.

Mark’s characterisation is that morality is that “Morality is the set of imperatives (and/or truths about what we should do) that apply to all human beings of all climes and times, and trump all others, and that manifest in our feelings, either as commands to be obeyed, as if from an external Power or Authority, or simply as spontaneous promptings of the ‘heart’ or ‘guts’.”

Further to the clear definition of morality that has been provided, the connection between rationality and morality is severed in this opening chapter. “Morality does not imply rationality, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ one has in mind. … rationality does not imply ‘morality’, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ has in mind.” Marks concludes this after having exhausted leach combination of moral and rational acts being either obligatory or permissible.** In the end, the conclusion is reached that morality and rationality are independent: able to agree or conflict.

Next time…

So far, Marks has given some background about his thinking, and how he eventually came to reject his lifelong belief in objective morality. He defined morality as being characterised as obligation without having opted into such a binding contract, a definition for which the next chapter will specifically reject: Does morality exist?

*"I am indeed a man without an ethical country, for even though there are a few fellow citizens of the Land of Amorality, there may not be any besides myself who live in the district of Animal Abolitionism." Being a vegan animal abolitionist and an amoralist at the time, I emailed Joel.
**Is every morally obligatory act rationally obligatory, Is every morally obligatory act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally obligatory, Is every rationally obligatory act morally obligatory, is every rationally obligatory act morally permissible, Is every rationally permissible act morally obligatory?

Atheism and amoralism are default positions

Atheists don’t claim that there are any gods and so lack belief by default. Naturally, they avoid the requirement to disprove the existence of God or gods because they don’t claim there are any. On the other hand, if the atheist makes the claim that God and gods do not exist, then they would be expected to justify their beliefs.

Likewise, theists who claim that God exists, are expected by skeptics to justify their beliefs — at least if they want to convince others. There really is no way for a theist or deist to avoid making an implicit claim. Only the soft atheist can claim the default position (of having no position on the existence of God).

The notion of a “default stance”, with respect to a God, gods, or any entities is conceptually the same. Just because someone can claim something exists, doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree or disagree with their claim. It is possible that you don’t know or don’t care about the truth: in either case the fact is that you don’t believe either way. This is analogous to the definition of soft atheism, which is “a”-theism (literally without a belief in a personal God).

Likewise, atheism, being the default rational position with respect to deities, is analogous to amoralism, which is the default rational position with respect to metaphysical moral facts.*

Moralist (noun): those who believe in moral facts and may dabble in moralising.

Moralising (verb): to proclaim moral facts, e.g. “killing babies is wrong”, especially with emotional fervour.

Morality (noun): the set of all moral facts.

As a definition, a moral fact would be a true moral statement. Now, if there cannot be any true moral statements, it is because there are no moral properties in the universe. Put another way: without any moral strand, moral statements cannot refer to anything real in reality. Moral statements become meaningless in a universe without moral qualities. And by definition, if there are no moral facts, then morality does not exist.

For a moral statement to be true, it would need to correspond to a (moral) aspect of reality. It is this (moral) aspect of reality, which would ground the truth of certain moral statements. To be clear, moral components of reality would be moral entities. Now, moralists claim that moral entities exist. It is this claim that amoralists do no accept. By default, amoralists do not believe the claims of moralists.

I guess we could say that hard amoralists claim morality doesn’t exist, and soft amoralists simply refrain from having a belief in morality.

If you believe moral statements like, “killing is bad,” can be true, then you are a moralist. Unless you say this as a completely nonsensical speech act, the root of your claim expresses your belief that the act of killing has a relationship with some moral quality of reality: the act of killing is actually connected to reality in some way other than the physical and conscious act. The important aspect of this moral claim is that there is an imperative to not do it.

The moralist believes moral facts are imperative: i.e. that obligations are upon all humans* to be moral. The moral imperative goes beyond specific moral statements and is broader: not only should we do moral things and avoid immoral things, but we must be moral: morality itself is good.

*Moral persons would be more accurate, as there is debate about what constitutes a morally accountable person: e.g. vegans think most animals are; or another example of some humans (like babies) are not considered morally guilty if they accidentally kill someone.

If we want to claim that “murder is wrong,” without referring to human preferences or situational or contextual parameters, then there must be moral facts. In which case, our feelings about the matter are actually irrelevant. So this is the very question we must ask ourselves: Do moral facts exist?

In other terms, is there at least one moral statement (like “murder is wrong”) which is actually true (or false)?

This of course raises the question of how humans might empirically discover such moral entities, learn moral facts, or rationally deduce moral imperatives.

Unfortunately for moralism, its strongest empirical evidence is intuitionism, after all “it’s obvious that some things are wrong!” But this isn’t an argument, it’s just an appeal to others who already share similar sentiments. Intuition does not establish the existence of a moral rule independent of human thinking: it appeals to examples of human thinking to establish its non-mental origin! (How could mental activity infer non-mental entities? By definition, mental and non-mental domains don’t overlap).

As a moral skeptic, I challenge claims that mind-independent entities that make certain acts obligatory exist. I suspect this entity called morality is just a comfortable narrative that people tell themselves. After all, what reason is there to adopt such a belief?

The amoralist holds the default position, just as the atheist does. This doesn’t mean morality and gods do not exist. It means that I don’t believe in them.

*Not to be confused with empirical morality, of which we can study with science, e.g. people's stated beliefs, common attitudes, etc.

Christian vs amoralist: a conversation

Today I had an interesting conversation. The conversation was not particularly rigorous, so, feel free to read my other blogs on the details of my view or save your time and just read something by a philosopher, e.g. Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. The other person (D), is a Christian and believes in objective values.

This has been heavily edited to save you time. I cleaned up typos and removed the names for anonymity purposes. A full transcript is available below, so, you can check my editing for mischaracterisations…

M Today at 12:29

Why [your] change away from atheism?

D Today at 12:29

One of the root arguments in philosophy is if there are transcendental moral standards and duties or whether morality is subjective. Once you go down line of reasoning you cannot be consistent anymore without a God.

M Today at 12:34

You said, that without a God you cannot be consistent and hold that there are transcendental moral standards, I agree, though what makes you think there are transcendental moral standards? (We may need to get into definitions — but I’m trying to use your phrases to bypass that for now). (most new atheists disagree with you BTW, and think you can establish objective morals without god — but I disagree with them).

D Today at 12:34

We know from personal experience that some things are always wrong. Like there’s no circumstances where it’s good to rape and kill children etc. If you want to deny that, then you are a scary person, it’s that simple.

M Today at 12:38

So, this is where I need to get us to tease apart a definition, because I think very few people (and I agree they are scary) would agree that raping and killing is desirable/likable/preferable. But you use the word ‘good’, which I think is entirely different than the concepts of desirable/likable/preferable, and so, I wonder how you know there is something that is ‘good’ to judge things by independent of our preferences?

D Today at 12:39

Preferences are not morals; preferences are subjective. Morality is objective; we can have subjective views of it, but that does not mean there is not an objective standard. And we know this because there are some things that are always wrong. We know this from experience. You know to kill your mum is wrong no matter what, regardless of preferences.

M Today at 12:40

But you are assuming a premise here. I know that I don’t want to kill my mum, but when you say it is wrong –regardless of whether I did want to kill my mum or not– you are assuming there is such a thing as objective goodness/wrongness (objectively morality, in short). But earlier you said that God exists because without a god we cannot consistently believe in transcendental moral standards (objective morality). So, at this point you justified a belief in God because of objective morality, and the justification of objective morality is God’s existence.

D Today at 12:44

So, if you do not accept those premises then you are not able to call anything good bad right or wrong. And we are all trapped in a sea of subjectivism.

M Today at 12:44

And so, what if that is the case?

D Today at 12:46

So, you would ignore your own experience, the feeling of guilt and pain and the human experience? If that is the case, we need to release all those rapists at once because they didn’t do anything wrong.

M Today at 12:47

Not at all, but I wouldn’t call it something else. It is certainly a feeling, but I do not know if an extraneous entity called objective morality exists, to call it that. Just because there is no objective standard, doesn’t mean individuals can’t have a personal standard. I happen to also, believe that due to evolution, as a social animal, most healthy people share our set of values (e.g. rape is extremely disliked/’wrong’).

D Today at 12:49

But that’s not transcendental and is subjective.

M Today at 12:49

Yes, while you can justify anything if morality is subjective, but if morality doesn’t exist, then there is no such thing as moral justification.

D Today at 12:49

Now it’s a matter of preference. So, you would deny the existence of morality?

M Today at 12:50

We should define it, but, yes, I am a moral-antirealist (i.e. I deny moral realism). [My preference is the term amoralist].

D Today at 12:50

Knowing right from wrong is different from being able to justify it.

M Today at 12:51

Again, I think we are confusing our words. I would probably agree with you as a person, on what you call right and wrong… And in every day speech would say so.

D Today at 12:51

You cannot make any claims to right or wrong from that position though. You cannot say anything is bad or wrong.

M Today at 12:51

That’s right, and I don’t. But philosophically, I don’t think there is anything beyond it other than agreeableness/disagreeableness.

D Today at 12:52

That’s absurdity if I come kill your family that’s only disagreeable to you?

M Today at 12:52

Of course it is. But again, that doesn’t mean I can’t have subjective disapproval/approval of things. But it is also, disagreeable to you and most other people. So, when it happens in rare cases in society, we use our force to deal with it legally or otherwise.

D Today at 12:53

Because it’s objectively morally wrong. That justifies subjective justification for the use of force also. These group here say that’s okay. So, it’s okay.

M Today at 12:54

Technically, it doesn’t justify it, it describes it. The difference is that I am not going around saying “I can, therefore I will” to all sorts of things that I don’t actually want to do, but it is a philosophical understanding that this is the nature of things.

D Today at 12:55

You have trapped yourself in a naturalistic paradigm and are denying your own experience to try and keep it consistent. You know cannot have morality and be consistent inside naturalism, so, you deny it.

M Today at 12:56

I’m not sure what you mean by naturalistic paradigm, but I do hold that being amoral is the default position. And that the burden of proof is on anyone asserting there is a thing called morality.

D Today at 12:56

Naturalism would be to deny that there is anything outside of the physical realm. There is only matter etc. You are free to deny there’s morality, but your existence contradicts your position. Anytime you feel wronged or wrong someone else. Your experience contradicts your position.

M Today at 12:57

But my experience of negative emotion to something like my mother being killed does not prove there is objective morality.

D Today at 12:58

But the fact you can wrong someone else proves there is objective morality. Otherwise you never wronged anyone. And there is no wrong. And that’s absurdity.

M Today at 12:58

That’s right, there is technically no ‘wrong’ done, whether it appears absurd or not.

D Today at 12:58

So, you choose absurdity to keep your naturalism consistent. You are stealing your own and everyone else’s ability to make moral claims to keep your ideological position consistent. You should scratch right wrong good bad from your vocabulary. They don’t exist according to you.

M Today at 13:02

Sure, I agree. I and in philosophical conversations I don’t use them as an advocate of them. I could say the same for your worldview, though. You have chosen God’s existence to keep your belief in objective morality consistent. Or — You have chosen your objective morality to keep your belief in God’s existence consistent. Or — you have chosen objective morality and God’s existence to keep your belief in strong emotional reactions consistent.

D Today at 13:02

No, I know there is morality, From experience…

D Today at 13:03

You lowered yourself to an animal. And denied right wrong good and bad. Just to keep a consistent position. If that’s what you want to do. I’m not saying that to be mean. It’s literally the implication of what you are saying.

M Today at 13:05

I guess from your world view, mankind are not animals, because they have the spirit of god in them and that, I am not differentiating myself from the animals.

D Today at 13:06

You shouldn’t need God to realize we are distinct from animals.

M Today at 13:06

We’re all animals.

D Today at 13:06

But if you deny morality you are by definition debasing yourself to that level.

M Today at 13:06

I don’t consider it debasing, but that’s a separate issue. I consider it logically consistent, the default view.

D Today at 13:07

Are you saying a human life is not more valuable than an animal? I value my wife’s life over my dogs…

M Today at 13:07

Same here. Life is the most valuable to the individual whose life it is.

D Today at 13:08

But you are saying that besides your subjective preference, her life is not more valuable than a dog. That’s the implication of your position.

M Today at 13:08

Her life can’t be more valuable, unless there is an objective standard for judging lives.

D Today at 13:09

See how far into absurdity you need to go to hold your position. You lower your wife’s objective value to that of a dog? And still can’t see the problem?

M Today at 13:09

But are you understanding that I am not saying your wife’s life isn’t valuable (to me), but that there is no such thing as objective value.

D Today at 13:10

Yes, I know what you are saying. And I’m telling you the implication of it.

M Today at 13:10

So, practically, the only difference we might have on this issue is that I am happy to live life as if there were no objective standard, whereas you claim there is one. Either way, my subjective values manifest in the same way as yours (at least with respect to your wive compared to a dog).

D Today at 13:11

You are pretending the implications don’t mean anything.

M Today at 13:11

What are the implications then? All you said is that I can’t objectively say that your wife’s life is more valuable than your dog’s. But practically speaking that doesn’t change the way you or I would act.

D Today at 13:12

You have no ability to make value judgments, you have no foundation for law, you cannot justify the value of human life I could go on.

M Today at 13:12

I can make value judgments as an individual, all foundations flow from there.

D Today at 13:13

You can do them, but you cannot justify them. Same old atheist dilemma. They can know good and bad, but they cannot justify it.

M Today at 13:13

The only justification is might.

D Today at 13:14

So, once again of I decide to shoot everyone in the street, well I was the mightiest. So, all good then.

M Today at 13:14

But now you are talking in hypotheticals, because if we look at that in more realistic way, it is not what happens. I do not say “all ‘good'” to someone shooting others, because technically there is no ‘good’. If someone shoots up a mall, they are killed in response, by the might of another person with a gun (presumably a citizen or the police). Why did you leave that out of the hypothetical? You’ve selected an unfavourable interpretation of might being justification for action by imagining actions we both don’t like.

D Today at 13:16

They “should” be killed. But according to you there’s no justification for that.

M Today at 13:16

There are no ‘shoulds‘, objectively.

D Today at 13:16

That’s absurdity. How many words do you need to deny the existence of? To hold your position? ‘Should’ doesn’t exist, ‘good’ doesn’t exist, ‘wrong’ … nope we just imagined it.

M Today at 13:16

Simply morality itself. I can hold on to ethics. I.e. The study of “what should I do?”, with conditional oughts, such as “if I want X then I ought to do Y”, e.g. If I want to act rationally, then I ought to consider the facts. But I dispense with Kantian, categorical imperatives such as “do Y” or “you ought to do Y”.

D Today at 13:17

Once again you deny the human experience to protect your ideology. Any claim for or against is an ideology.

M Today at 13:17

It’s not an ideology. Respectfully, you have an ideology, and I have the lack of one (at least on this topic of morality). The default position is that there is no reason to believe in an entity called morality without reason or evidence to adopt a belief in it. It’s a default position, not a for or against.

D Today at 13:20

No, the default position is human experience, you want to discard that pretend you are an animal and deny anything outside of it.

M Today at 13:20

As I said earlier, you are assuming that human experience includes knowing what is objectively moral, that I deny.

D Today at 13:21

No, we don’t need to know what is objectively moral for something to be objectively moral. It could be that nobody knows what is actually objectively moral.

M Today at 13:21

I agree with that, in the sense that I agree that one of the defining characteristics of objective morality is that it is independent of our thinking about it.

D Today at 13:21

But if you deny that objective morality exists you have nothing and are an animal, and cannot make claims to anything. Can’t have law. Can’t do anything.

M Today at 13:21

If I have preferences, I can have law.

D Today at 13:22

But you cannot justify them.

M Today at 13:22

They can be justified by might, and why do you assume that just because the only justification is might, that everyone will murder and rape?

D Today at 13:22

Because my preferences might include murder and rape.

M Today at 13:22

Indeed, for some people that is the case, but…

 [Here I tried to paraphrase the following quote, so put the whole thing here]

“The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine. I don’t want to do that. Right now, without any god, I don’t want to jump across this table and strangle you. I have no desire to strangle you. I have no desire to flip you over and rape you. You know what I mean?” Penn Jillette

D Today at 13:23

Yes, and they are just as correct in their preferences as you are. According to you.

M Today at 13:23

I wouldn’t use the phrase “correct”, but they will certainly try to justify themselves with their might — just as I will fight back.

M Today at 13:24

And many more people will stand in union with me, because most people share the subjective value that murder is wrong.

D Today at 13:24

If my preference is to kill you, and your preference is me not to kill you, we can’t both be right, someone must be wrong.

M Today at 13:24

There’s no “right”. It just is.

D Today at 13:26

Notice how I don’t need to deny the existence of anything. You need to deny everything outside of naturalism. You need to deny morality.

M Today at 13:27

No, on the contrary, you are invoking morality. I am in the default position. Maybe we are just repeating ourselves now?

D Today at 13:28

Pretty much. But just to end this. In my world humans have intrinsic value above animals and there is a right and a wrong. In yours we are animals and there is no right and wrong.

M Today at 13:29

I think that is fair.


[we ended this amicably, the above was not personal for either person]

Full chat below: (the only change made was on the names, and as I said, edits to make the above read quicker, but I intend no mischaracterisation. The only unfairness is that I added slight substance to some of my points.)

Continue reading “Christian vs amoralist: a conversation”