The Problem of Evil: Still A Strong Argument for Atheism

Introduction

In this article I will consider the problem of evil, one of the main arguments against the existence of an all-good and all-knowing God. This article is written largely in response to a conference on the problem of evil I attended recently at which Christian apologist John Dickson presented keynote lectures. As such, much of my discussion, in particular the ‘inconsistency response’ which I critique at length, are inspired by his remarks at this event. However this piece is designed to stand alone, and so is not structured as a point-by-point critique of Dickson’s arguments. Instead, I discuss a number of issues which I think are of relevance to this question.

First I begin by presenting a simple ‘naive’ argument from evil, setting the groundwork for a discussion and critique of a common rebuttal to the argument, namely that the problem of evil requires a presupposition of theism and therefore is self-contradictory. I argue that both of the key premises of this rebuttal, namely that an atheist must presuppose moral realism in order for the argument to work, and that moral realism cannot be justified under atheism, are both false, and therefore the inconsistency rebuttal dependent upon these premises is unsound. I then present an improved, inference to the best explanation form of the argument from evil, and consider various criticisms of this form of argument. I conclude that the problem of evil remains a powerful argument in favour of atheism.

A Naive Argument from Evil

I will begin by presenting what I describe as a ‘naive’ argument from evil. I describe it as ‘naive’ not in order to denigrate the argument (which I think is promising albeit in need of further refinement), but merely in order to distinguish this simple, generic version of the argument from evil from more sophisticated, specific versions of the argument that have been advocated in the philosophical literature. It is something like this ‘naive’ argument that atheists often raise and theists often respond to in more popular discourse, and therefore I think it useful to frame the discussion for much of the remainder of this piece. The argument is given as follows:

P1. There exist a large number of horrible forms of evil and suffering for which we can see no greater purpose or compensating good.

P2. If an all-powerful, all-good God existed, then such horrific, apparently purposeless evils would not exist.

C. Therefore, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist.

Note that the conclusion could be interpreted as being arrived at with deductive certainly, or (more plausibly), as being established by the argument as probably true to some level of certainty. Logical versions of the problem of evil are much more difficult to defend philosophically than evidential versions, but I don’t wish to get distracted by such distinctions here, so readers may feel free to interpret the above argument through either lens.

The Inconsistency Response

One common avenue of response to the problem of evil is for a theist to argue that the atheist critique of the ‘problem of evil’ is self-contradictory, depending for its force upon the existence of God in order to argue against God’s existence. The idea is that if atheism holds and God does not exist, there cannot be any objective existence of evil or suffering, for to make any sense of such concepts requires the existence of God, whose perfectly good being serves as the grounding of all notions of goodness, and against which the countervailing notions of evil and suffering can be contrasted. Without God providing grounding for goodness, therefore, there can be no evil and no suffering, and so in appealing to these concepts the atheist is actually contradicting themselves, unintentionally furnishing an indirect argument in favour of the very God they seek to disprove. We may summarise this response in the form of the following syllogism:

P1. In order for the argument from evil to be sound, it must appeal to an antecedently established source of objective morality.

P2. Under atheism, there can be no source of objective morality.

C. Therefore, the argument from evil is unsound.

I reject both premises of this argument. In the next two sections I shall successively explain why I think each of them is false. My purpose is to show that the problem of evil survives this popular criticism against it, and thus retains its force as a reason for disbelief in an all-good, all-powerful God.

Is the Problem of Evil Self-Undermining?

Beginning with the first premise, I do not agree that it is necessary for the atheist to appeal to any notion of objective morality or evil in order for the argument from evil to be sound. This is because the argument from evil can be understood as a form of reductio ad absurdum. Such arguments work by assuming the truth of the conclusion they wish to critique, and then demonstrating that this leads to absurd results. On the basis of these absurd consequences it is therefore reasoned that the contention in question is impossible (or at least unlikely) to be true.

In the case of the problem of evil, all that is needed is a recognition that certain states of affairs prevail in the world that possess properties contrary to the purported nature of God. For example, natural disasters and diseases cause millions to suffer and die for no apparent purpose. Such occurrences are contrary to God’s nature to be caring and loving towards his creation, not wishing them to suffer without reason. We therefore may use words like ‘evil’ to describe such occurrences, not in the sense that the hurricane was malevolent, but in the sense that the states of affairs resulting from such occurrences are contrary to God’s alleged good nature. Once we recognise this contradiction between God’s purported nature and the actual state of affairs in the world, we arrive at the reductio portion of the argument. Namely, that if a God with a god nature did exist and was all powerful, the world should be absent of horrific pointless suffering this being against God’s nature. But this is absurd, for the world abounds in horrific pointless suffering. Thus we infer that God does not exist.

The crucial point to realise about this argument is that it does not require the atheist to present a grounded, objective conception of evil or suffering in order for this argument to work. Rather, all they need to demonstrate is a conflict between an all-good God and other facts about the world. Thus the response that this argument ‘presupposes the existence of God’ thus entirely misses the point, since presupposing the conclusion one wishes to refute is precisely the point of this line of argument, and does not represent some sort of mistake or defect. The idea is to presume the truth of the conclusion and then show that this leads to absurd results. This type of argument is used widely in philosophy and indeed even in mathematics, and responding to such an argument by asserting that it ‘presupposes the conclusion it seeks to refute’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of a basic tool in logical reasoning.

Does Atheism Entail Moral Nihilism?

Proceeding now to the second premise of the rebuttal, I will argue that there is in fact no good reason to think that atheistic worldviews are in principle incapable of supporting objective morality. In my experience this alleged incompatibility between atheism and objective morality is seldom actually argued for by those making this argument, but rather it is merely asserted. What reason is given for this exactly?

Morality, at least under one understanding, consists of a set of propositions concerning the goodness or badness of certain actions and/or states of affairs. What exactly is the reason for supposing that such facts cannot pertain in the absence of a God? There are numerous serious accounts presented in the literature as to how such propositions might be instantiated or justified in a naturalistic framework. Indeed, I think it is much more plausible to argue that we suffer from a plethora of competing accounts for how this could be, rather than a complete lack of any such proposals as the theist claims.

In order to justify the claim that no naturalistic accounts of morality are viable, therefore, one would need first to demonstrate the inadequacy of all serious proposals for a naturalistic morality, and furthermore provide an argument for why no similar future proposal could possibly work. Usually I find virtually no attempt to do the former, and only very weak arguments made in defence of the latter. Below I briefly respond to a few common points that are often made when criticising atheistic morality, and show why they are fallacious. Note that the particular forms of the arguments I quote in italics were written by me, but I think are broadly representative of the sorts of claims often made in the context of such discussions.

The Materiality of Mankind

‘Under naturalism humans are nothing more than bags of cells brought about by chance collisions of particles, with no inherent purpose or value whatever.’

I have two main objections to this argument. Firstly, this argument commits the fallacy of composition, inferring that because atoms or cells have no moral value in themselves, that therefore any collection of them cannot have moral value. This is equivalent to arguing that because individual water molecules are not wet, that therefore collections of them cannot have the property of wetness. Such reasoning is fallacious therefore and cannot be used to ground a case against atheistic moral realism.

Second, it is question-begging to say that without anything beyond the material world, there can be no moral significance to anything in the material world, because that is precisely the point of contention which the atheist moral realist denies. It is necessary to give an argument as to why something beyond the material world is necessary for objective moral values to exist, rather than merely assert that since atheism lacks such a thing that therefore atheistic morality must fail. In particular, the theist needs to explain what would be necessary in order for objective morality to exist, what epistemological or ontological function needs to be fulfilled, and then explain how God fulfills such a function while no purely material entities could do. An example might be: ‘any ground for morality must be eternal, but no material thing is eternal. Hence the ground for morality must be God’. I disagree with the first premise, but the point is that this is the type of argument that would need to be given to show that some supernatural entity fulfills some specific function that a material entity could not. Absent such an explanation, this rebuttal is entirely question-begging.

The Is-Ought Gap

‘There is no way for atheists to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap.’

The idea of the is/ought gap is that one cannot validly draw an ethical conclusion from a series of non-ethical premises, without implicitly relying on unstated ethical premises. The idea is that there is a ‘gap’ between any factual ‘is’ statements one may make, and any normative conclusion that one may wish to draw from them. Allegedly, this serves as a fatal flaw to any attempted naturalistic account of morality, for it is impossible to argue from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ without incorporating normative premises into one’s argument, thereby begging the question.

Along with a number of other philosophers who have considered this question, I am of the belief that this notion of an argumentative ‘gap’ is not specific to morality at all, but rather is a much broader point concerning how to connect different subject matters or spheres of discourse. To understand this, think about how one might try to give a reductive account of why an event was ‘fun’. One might talk about playing with friends, going on rides at a fair, telling great jokes, having stimulating new experiences, and many other such things, but none of these premises would allow us to say anything about having fun. To make a conclusion about ‘fun’, we would need to include an additional premise of the form ‘laughing is fun’, or ‘having stimulating new experiences is a fun experience’, etc. These premises, however, include the notion of ‘fun’, which is precisely what we are attempting to give an account of, and thus we may be accused of begging the question. From arguments like this, we could conclude that there is an ‘is/fun’ gap, or no way of giving an explanation as to why an experience was fun using purely non-fun concepts.

This particular example is my invention, but this general idea has been discussed in the philosophical literature. My own preferred response to such matters is that there simply is nothing problematic about such arguments, and that the person taking issue with them ultimately is forced into a position of widespread scepticism, in that they will be unable to justify a large range of claims they typically would wish to make without (by their own criteria) begging the question.

A second, independent consideration that theists raising the is/ought gap seldom acknowledge is that if an is/ought gap does exist, appealing to God does nothing whatever to overcome it, a point that has been discussed by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Indeed, Hume himself explicitly includes ‘the being of a God’ as one such ‘is’ fact in his original formulation of the dilemma! Theists can make a long list of assertions about God’s commandments, or God’s nature, or God’s relationship to us, or whatever other facts they may wish to appeal to, however since these are all claims about what ‘is’, they are vulnerable to the ‘is/ought gap’ critique in exactly the same way as any naturalistic ethical theory would be. That is, in order to infer based on what God commands what one ought to do, one must introduce a premise something like ‘one ought to do what God commands’, which is a moral premise. Thus theistic ethical theories do no better in bridging the is/ought gap then atheistic moral theories.

Blind Forces of Nature

‘There can be no greater purpose to life or objective moral worth in a universe run solely by the blind forces of nature.’

This is very similar to the first objection, but I include both because I often find that theists will make this same fundamental point in a number of different ways, using slightly different language. My response, as before, is that this objection is question begging. The atheist moral realist claims that there can be objective morality in a purely material universe. Rather than presenting an argument for why this is impossible, the theist making this statement is merely asserting their position as if it were self-evident and requiring of no further substantiation. Perhaps such views are self-evident to some theists, but they certainly are not to many atheists, and as such it is incumbent upon those making the claim to provide a cogent argument for it, rather than merely asserting it.

The atheist moral realist is totally unfazed by talk of ‘blindness laws of nature’ or the ‘cruelty of the natural world’, and other such aphorisms. The atheist moral realist believes that facts regarding meaning and purpose can supervene upon, or emerge out of, purely materialistic states of affairs, in a way analogous to how the meaning of language derives from mere neural firings and vibrations of air molecules, or how living beings are comprised of nothing but materials which themselves are non-living chemicals. The atheist has numerous sophisticated philosophical accounts to appeal to in support of this contention, none of which are addressed by this argument.

Laws Imply a Law-Giver

‘Laws imply a law-giver, and therefore moral laws imply the existence of a moral law-giver’.

I dispute the notion that the existence of laws implies or requires a law-giver, as I think there are many examples of various sorts of laws that exist despite the absence of any clear law-giver. There are laws of propriety and etiquette without any person or body to act as ‘law giver’. Laws of grammar and spelling exist without any lawgiver. Laws of physics/nature can exist without any lawgiver. (Note that if theists dispute this, they are taking the position that without the existence of God, there could be no form of orderliness to the cosmos at all. If this very strong position were true then I question why theists would even bother arguing about morality, as atheism would not even be able to account for the regularities discovered by science).

Perhaps one could argue that none of these are really ‘laws’, but are customs, practices, rules, or mere regularities. In some cases this may be a valid distinction to make, but I very much doubt this will apply to all such examples. For example, there are very explicit laws about the spelling of many English words, without requiring any person or group who gives such laws. These are not mere optional customs: if you violate them you will be described as doing something “wrong” (not morally or legally wrong, but wrong in terms of the laws of spelling), and often reprimanded (often by social or professional disapproval). Call these spelling rules if you prefer, but I fail to see the relevant difference.

Notwithstanding one’s views on science or spelling, even in an explicitly legal context, I think it is clear that the principle of laws requiring a law-giver is false. What lawgiver establishes the legality of a constitution, or of international laws? For instance, by what legal authority was the United States Constitution promulgated as lawful? What lawgiver established the legal force of the International Criminal Court? In the United Kingdom, which lacks a written constitution, who exactly is the supreme law-giver supposed to be? Is it the monarch who imbues legal authority to the parliament, or the parliament who imbues legal status to the Queen? The very fact that in cases like this legal scholars can argue at length about technical de jure justifications and de facto realities just illustrates my point that this notion that ‘laws require a lawgiver’ is predicated upon an absurdly naive and indefensible notion of what constitute ‘laws’ and on what virtue they have normative force.

On the basis of such examples and numerous others, I see no reason at all to accept the premise that laws require lawgivers. The only way to save this argument that I can see is to assert by definitional fiat that laws must be established by lawgivers, in which case the argument becomes question-begging, since the theist would have to begin with the presumption that a moral lawgiver (i.e. God) exists, in order to establish the existence of the very ‘moral laws’ they seek to use as proof of the existence of said God.

An IBE Argument from Evil

Having considered two main objections to a naive form of the argument from evil, I now wish to reiterate the argument in a form which I think has considerable persuasive power. The argument takes the form of an inference to the best explanation as a mode of argument to establish the probable truth of the conclusion on the basis of the premises.

P1. There exist many diverse forms of apparently purposeless evil and suffering in the world.

P2. The best explanation for this is the non-existence of an all-powerful, all-good God

C. Therefore an all-powerful, all-good God (probably) does not exist

Theodicies

Besides the objection I responded to at length above (singled out because it seems to be the most common objection), theistic responses to this argument typically take one of three forms. The first is to deny P1, which is typically done by appealing to some form of theodicy, or an explanation of God’s reasons for allowing suffering and evil of various types, and therefore denying the existence of pointless suffering and evil. I regard all extant theodicies as incomplete or problematic, especially with regard to natural evil (e.g. natural disasters, diseases), and thus incapable of explaining all instances of apparently pointless suffering, as would be required in order to disprove P1. For time and space constraints, however, I will not offer critiques of specific theodicies here, something however that the atheist does need to do in order to provide a completely rigorous defense of this argument. For the moment, however, I shall simply appeal to the fact that many Christians seem to be in agreement we me that no extant theodicy is satisfactory. Indeed, most theodicies are theologically very controversial, which may be one reason why many apologists often seem to avoid offering them.

Skeptical Theism

The second broad form of response is to deny P2, the most prominent justification of which takes the form of a position known as sceptical theism. Skeptical theism does not deny that there many apparently pointless evils and sufferings in the world, but instead argues that atheism is not the best explanation for them. Instead it is argued that we have no particular reason to be aware of the reasons, complex and far beyond or ken as they may well be, that God may have for permitting such suffering and evil. Thus it is asserted that lack of ability to gain insight into which such reasons might be is the best explanation for apparently pointless suffering, rather than the absence of an all-powerful, all-good God. I regard this response is more convincing than any theodicies I have heard, but still I think it fails to defeat P2. The reason I think it so fails is because sceptical theism does not offer any explanatory power of its own. It merely asserts that we are not in the capacity to know why God may permit suffering and evil, but offers nothing comparable to the explanatory power naturally provided by the atheistic explanation. To use an imperfect but perhaps helpful metaphor, sceptical theism may give a reason why theism does not ‘lose points’ as a result of failing to explain suffering and evil, but it does not alter the fact that atheism ‘gains points’ as a result of the explanatory power that this hypothesis gives us regarding the observed phenomena of evil and suffering in the world.

Defeaters

The third general form of response to this argument is to accept P1 and P2, but deny the validity of the argument. One method for doing this would be to say that the argument is only valid ‘all else being equal’, but that even granting the premises, the conclusion can be avoided if sufficiently strong ‘defeaters’ are present. Such defeaters would likely take the form of independent arguments for the existence of God, which establish the falsity of atheism to a sufficiently high degree of likelihood such that even after factoring in the negative evidence provided by the problem of evil, on balance one is still left with a greater likelihood than not that an all-powerful, all-good God exists. Such an approach is, in my view, by far the most reasonable theistic response to the problem of evil – basically to say that apparently pointless evil and suffering constitute some evidence against the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God, but not sufficient evidence against to make belief unwarranted. Where I differ from theists offering this defense is of course the strength of those other, independent reasons for believing in God’s existence, however discussion of such further matters is best left for another blog post.

Conclusion

In this piece I have argued that the problem of evil, especially when presented in the form of an inference to the best explanation, survives common refutations and emerges as a powerful argument against the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God. In particular, I argued that the existence of apparently pointless suffering and evil in the world is better explained by atheism than theism, and thus constitutes a reason for belief in atheism. I defended this argument against the criticism that it is self-contradictory, briefly discussed some problems with theodicies, and argued that sceptical theism fails to address the issue of explanatory power which is at the heart of the IBE form of the argument. As such, it is my belief that the problem of evil remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of atheism over theism.

Justifying Morality Without God: The Difference between Humans and Chickens

Synopsis

In this piece I discuss some comments made in this recent blog piece concerning the alleged inability of any atheistic worldview to provide a ‘rational basis’ for valuing moral life over chicken life. I argue that this piece fallaciously argues that because humans and chickens are comprised of the same fundamental substances, that therefore they must share the same moral value, explaining how this is an instance of the fallacy of composition. I then address the claim that atheism cannot provide a rational basis for human value, arguing that neither atheism nor theism can provide the sort of bootstrapping ‘value from reason alone’ that this piece seems to seek, and indeed that reason is simply not capable of doing so.

Animal Rights?

I wish to begin this piece by just very briefly remaking on this strange assertion found at the beginning of the article in question:

The other day I ate a chicken sandwich. The chicken was killed, dismembered and cooked and placed on a bread roll that I had for lunch. Yet there was no outcry, no police enquiry, and no news reports. Millions of people eat chicken every day and it is completely morally acceptable.

While I don’t doubt that there was no public outcry or policy enquiry, I am curious on what basis the author asserts that millions of people eating chicken every day is ‘completely morally acceptable’? I know a lot of philosophers and intelligent people generally who would not agree that eating chicken in this way is always ‘completely morally acceptable’. I myself do not eat chicken, in large part precisely because I do not find it ‘completely morally acceptable’. I will not defend this view here, I merely wish to raise the point to forestall others from doing so (and so distract the discussion from more central issues), and also to highlight that discussions of these sort involving morality and rationality are fraught with danger, given how much moral disagreement exists about even comparatively simple matters as eating chicken. What to one person is a totally innocuous act of no moral consequence to another is tantamount to murder (not that I think eating chicken is as bad as murder, but some people do). Enough on such things however. I will now move on to the meatier (haha) aspects of the article.

The Fallacy of Composition

“Now my question: in the atheist universe, why is cooking a human different to cooking a chicken? There appears no fundamental difference. A chicken is matter and energy and a human is matter and energy. Both are the same, neither has any intrinsic value. Hence it seems inconsistent and unjustified within an atheist system for there to be an outcry at the murder and cooking of human DNA.”

Let me attempt to paraphrase the argument I think is being made here in the following syllogism:

  1. A chicken and a human are both fundamentally comprised of matter and energy
  2. If two things are comprised of the same fundamental substance then they have the same moral value
  3. Therefore, chickens and humans have equivalent moral value

Premise 2 seems fairly obviously suspect. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental substance out of which something is made is what determines its moral value. As Carl Sagan said of beauty, but which could equally well apply to moral value, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together“. In particular, an atheist defending the greater moral value of humans compared to chickens could appeal to the greater human capacity for consciousness and self-awareness, their ability to experience higher forms of pain and pleasure, their greater potential for intellectual and social engagement with the world, and any number of other morally significant differences between humans and chickens. To put it another way, there is a vague collection of properties, the more of which are possessed by some entity, the more moral value it has. A rock has essentially none of these properties, a chicken has more, and a human has more still. The appeal to the face of being comprised of identical fundamental substances is of no clear relevance at all.

Indeed, this argument seems to be an instance of the fallacy of composition, in which it is falsely asserted that the whole must share the properties of its parts. For example, a puddle of water has a temperature and the property of being wet, but no individual water molecules of which the puddle is wholly comprised have such properties. Conversly, while the protons and electrons comprising the puddle are electrically charged, the puddle itself is electrically neutral. To give another example, in some random group of ten people, each person has a hair colour, but the group as a whole does not have a hair colour. Examples can be given ad nauseam. In this case, it is argued that because (in atheistic universe) humans are made up of nothing more than matter and energy, and because matter and energy of themselves have no moral value, therefore humans have no moral value. This is fallacious because, as illustrated previously, a whole need not share its properties with its parts. This is the fallacy of composition in action.

A Rational Basis for Morality?

“If a child is simply matter and energy, as are rocks, stars, chickens, computers and trees, there appears to be no rational basis for valuing human ‘matter and energy’ over chicken ‘matter and energy’. There appears no fundamental difference between cooking a human and cooking a chicken.”

Here I want to focus on the use of the phrase “no rational basis valuing human ‘matter and energy’”. I must admit it is not entirely clear to me what is meant by this. What is meant by ‘rational’ in this context? Does it mean that someone who was only interested in holding true beliefs about the external world would not come to value human matter and energy? If so, then I agree completely. I do not believe there is any such thing as value ‘built in’ (the word ‘intrinsic’ is often used, though I often find that more obfuscatory than enlightening) to the world, such that mere recognition of a fact necessitates some kind of attribution of value to something. Nor do I think this is a product of an atheistic universe – I think it is just as much a fact about any possible theistic universe as an atheistic universe.

For consider a hypothetical person who is fully rational, in the sense of caring only about holding true beliefs about the way things really are. Suppose such a person follows the evidence and arguments, and comes to the belief that God exists, and furthermore that God has given mankind various commandments and laws. Does it follow from any purely ‘rational basis’ that this hypothetical person should therefore value God’s commandments, or believe that they have a moral obligation to follow them? I contend that it does not. They have merely discovered a fact about what God commands, which by itself provides no ‘rational basis’ for valuing God’s commands. This idea is not mine; it is simply an application of Moore’s famous Open Question Argument.

An atheist most certainly can rationally defend human dignity and value. We, as individuals and as a society, care about the suffering, the joy, and the flourishing of self-aware, conscious, intelligent creatures such as humans (and possibly other species too, maybe even chickens, but let’s leave that aside for now). What’s that you say? What if our interlocutor claims not to care one wit about such things – what can we say then to convince them? The answer, of course, is nothing. Just as the theist has nothing to say to the person who claims to believe in God and his commandments, but feels no compunction or desire to follow them. ‘Rationality’ cannot bootstrap itself from nothing – it has to start somewhere. Just as the theist cannot give any deeper non-question begging reason deriving from rationality alone for why God ought to be obeyed or why his commands constitute moral laws, likewise the atheist can give no deeper non-question begging reason from rationality alone for why human life has value: the situations are symmetric.

The trouble here is not the dearth of reasons, but the desire to both reasons and rationality further then they can go. Rationality can get you from one belief to another without falling into falsity, but it cannot tell you what beliefs to start with, or in this case what things to ultimately care about. It is our mistake to expect that it would ever be capable of such a feat.

70 Years after Auschwitz: Reflections on the Holocaust

Introduction

Seventy years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, elements of the 332nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz. This date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War.

The word ‘holocaust’ derives from the Greek holókauston, and refers to a religious sacrifice in which the offering is completely burnt. The word was used for centuries to refer to great massacres, and in the decades following the World War II it become the term preferred by English-speaking scholars to refer to the genocide of the Jewish people by Nazi Germany. The Hebrew term for the event is Shoah, which means ‘catastrophe’, a term I think is probably more fitting, however in this article I shall adhere to convention and use the word ‘holocaust’ to refer specifically to the genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe during World War II.

In this short piece I cannot possibly do justice to an event of such monumental importance and scope, and so I will not try do to so. Instead, I shall restrict myself to sharing some thoughts and observations regarding specific aspects of the Holocaust that I find especially important and interesting.

Uniqueness

The Holocaust, in my view, was a singular and distinct historical event. There have of course been many other genocides and atrocities both before and since, but the Holocaust possessed certain features which I think make it unique. In particular, the Holocaust was distinct from other genocides in the organised, mechanised, systematic manner in which the killings were carried out. In the words of German historian Eberhard Jäckel:

“Never before had a state with the authority of its responsible leader decided and announced that a specific human group, including its aged, its women and its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this resolution using every possible means of state power.”

The Holocaust was such an immense logistical and organisational undertaking that essentially every branch of the German state apparatus participated to one degree or other: records of Jewish identity were supplied by the Interior Ministry and local churches, the Post Office delivered deportation and other administrative orders, the Finance Ministry was responsible for confiscating Jewish property and the Reichsbank for laundering stolen money and valuables, universities expelled Jewish students and academics, government-operated railways transported millions of prisoners to concentration and extermination camps, while German companies tested drugs on concentration camp prisoners, bid for contracts to build the crematoria, and provided technologies such as punch card machines and Zyklon-B used in the extermination process. The Holocaust was truly an undertaking which spanned the breadth and depth of the Reich’s state apparatus – it was a national endeavour.

In other religiously-based genocides throughout history (including Jewish pogroms of centuries past), members of the target group were usually able to escape death by conversion (or pretending to convert), but this was not the case during the Holocaust. Anyone with at least three Jewish grandparents who had not converted before 1871 was to be executed, irrespective of their professed religious beliefs. This policy reflected Nazi ideologies concerning the importance of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race, and that the contaminating element of Jewish identity was not primarily social or ideological but biological.

Another unique feature of the Holocaust was the use of extermination camps. As far as I have been able to determine, this is the only time in history where facilities have been established specifically for the mass execution of an entire class of people (as distinct from killing selected persons for religious, entertainment, or judicial purposes). The use of gas chambers for mass murder was definitely a German innovation, one which came after extensive experimentation with different methods of most easily and efficiently killing large groups of people. Other methods that were trialled included shooting, lethal injections, and gas vans, before eventually the Germans settled on the method of extermination by gas chambers, which was found to be capable of dealing with large number of victims quickly, and also placed less of a psychological strain on the perpetrating SS soldiers then did methods like mass shootings.

The Germans rapidly developed a precise and orderly system for conducting mass executions. Jews were rounded up at the point of origin, loaded onto goods trains, and transported to the extermination camps, under the guise that they were to be ‘resettled’. Once at the camps, those seemed fit to work were used for slave labour, while the rest were sent directly to the gas chambers for immediate execution. Prisoners were told to undress for showering and delousing, their clothes and other valuables systematically collected and catalogued for later resale. Even gold teeth were extracted from the corpses to be melted down. After entering the gas chambers the prisoners were locked in, and the poison gas (Zyklon-B was used at Auschwitz) was introduced into the chamber. After about twenty minutes the last of the thumping and screaming – easily audible outside the chamber – died out, and the chamber was opened and the corpses removed and cremated by members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners forced to work for the Germans before they too were eventually killed. About three million Jews were killed in eight extermination camps in circumstances much like this, including about one million at Auschwitz itself.

The organised, bureaucratic way in which the Holocaust was carried out was quite remarkable and historically unprecedented. During the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, Adolf Eichmann presented a list specifying the number of Jews in every country in Europe, including neutral countries not under Germany’s control. This list is taken as clear evidence that the Nazis planned to eventually extend the Holocaust throughout all of Europe. In this document, Estonia was already listed as Judenfrei (free of Jews), thanks to the actions of the Einsatzgrupppen, who moved in swiftly after the German occupation began. The Einsatzgruppen were special death squads deployed in Eastern Europe, and were responsible for killing perhaps one million Jews. They kept detailed records of their massacres which they provided their superiors to keep track of the progress that was being made towards annihilating all Jews. One such document, called the Jäger Report, survived the war, and contains daily tallies of the number of Jews killed in Lithuania during late 1941. With deadly precision, it shows an end tally of 136,421 Jews murdered, including 46,403 men, 55,556 women, and 34,464 children.

The Germans also kept detailed records concerning the number of arrivals at extermination camps. The Höfle Telegram records 23,611 arrivals at four camps in the two weeks before 21 December 1942. Likewise, the Korherr Report of January 1943 contains detailed information concerning the decline in Jewish populations throughout Europe over the first decade of Nazi rule. Many other such documents existed, but were destroyed in the dying days of the war in an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocities from the occupying Allies forces. Nevertheless, the documentation which does survive clearly portrays the organised, systematic way in which the German state apparatus was directed towards murderous ends, to a degree not found in other genocides.

Another key feature of the Holocaust was its immense scale. Numbers alone cannot do justice to the magnitude of the tragedy, but nonetheless they are useful for providing some context. In 1938, there were roughly 9.5 million Jews in Europe (including Russia). Of those, roughly 8 million lived in Germany, allies of Germany, or regions later occupied by Germany, with most of the remaining 1.5 million living in the UK or parts of Russia that remained unoccupied. The total death toll of the Holocaust, according to Lucy Dawidowicz’s figures (which I consider to be the most complete and accurate), is close to 6 million exactly. This means that the Nazis killed about 75% of all Jews under their control, and about 66% of all the Jews in Europe. Undoubtedly had the war continued for longer, the percentages would have been higher still. It is also important to note that today there are around 14 million Jews in the world (mostly living in either Israel or the USA), compared to perhaps 16 million in 1938, meaning that the world Jewish population has still not recovered from the Holocaust. Owing both to the Holocaust and post-war emigration to the US and Israel, the Jewish population of Europe has fallen from its pre-war high to about 1.5 million today. Many Jewish communities, particularly in Eastern Europe, were completely eradicated, never to be revived. This level of destruction has seldom been achieved in such a short space of time.

Responsibility

There is, I think, a fairly widespread belief that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a small minority of fanatical Nazis, with most ordinary Germans either being kept ignorant of what was happening, or being forcibly compelled by the Nazi hierarchy to carry out murderous actions. The idea, I think, is that evil deeds are done by evil people, and that therefore the lesson of the Holocaust is to keep evil people out of positions of power and influence. I believe this view is essentially false, and that the truth of the matter is much more complex, and also much more frightening.

It is difficult to know how much the average German knew about the Holocaust during the years in which it was being carried out. Certainly many of the details, including the existence of gas chambers, was kept secret. However, various sources of evidence point towards the conclusion that knowledge of what was being done to the Jews, in broad terms, was quite widespread. Given the scale of the undertaking and the involvement of so many state agencies and other groups, as well as the sheer number of camps that existed throughout Germany, makes it very hard to see how knowledge of what was occurring could have been kept secret. In his famous war diary entitled Mein Widerstand, a minor official named Friedrich Kellner recorded how he heard of a massacre of Polish Jews from a soldier on vacation from the front, illustrating the sort of means by which ordinary Germans could obtain such information. On this subject, historian Peter Longerich has said that “general information concerning the mass murder of Jews was widespread in the German population.” And to the degree that they were aware of what was occurring, the reaction of most Germans was, on the whole, that of indifference, or as Ian Kershaw put it so eloquently: “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference”. Other scholars have argued that ‘passive complicity’ may be a more appropriate description, highlighting the widespread participation with various aspects of the Holocaust by German civil, military, and corporate bodies, and also the widespread underpinning of moderate anti-Semitism.

In his classic work The 12-Year Reich, historian Richard Grungerber writes:

“In the entire history of the Third Reich no single body – civic, academic or even religious – ever made use of such opportunities as it had for publicly protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. The feasibility of protests of this nature was demonstrated… by Cardinal Galen’s denunciation of euthanasia from the pulpit, which evoked a sufficiently strong resonance to halt the regime’s ‘mercy killing’ programme. But euthanasia victims were flesh of German flesh, and those effected ranged through all classes of society. Some Jews too had self sacrificing and devoted friends… but ‘the righteous among Gentiles’ were individuals, representative only of themselves; as far as the great majority were concerned, Jewish suffering affected beings in another galaxy rather than inhabitants of the same planet as themselves.”

Grungerber here refers to the German forced euthanasia program Aktion T4, which met with such substantial opposition from within the bureaucracy and the churches that Hitler officially cancelled the program in August 1941 (though killings did continue in much greater secrecy until the end of the war). In contrast, no formal protests or organised opposition of this sort took place with respect to the regime’s treatment of the Jews. The sole exception was the Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, in which a group of German women publicly protested against the deportation of their Jewish husbands, and succeeded in having them released. If only this sort of opposition had been more sustained and widespread, the death toll of the Holocaust of may have been far lower. Alas, as historian Saul Friedländer writes:

“Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.”

Thousands of personnel in the Germany Army actively participated in massacres of Jews (as well as Poles and Soviet prisoners of war) on the Eastern Front. Most Wehrmacht soldiers were not Nazi party members, but ordinary Germans from all walks of life. Such behaviour was encouraged from the highest levels of the Wehrmacht, as for instance in the infamous Severity Order of October 1941, in which Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau declared:

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.”

As far as I have been able to determine, German soldiers were seldom if ever punished for refusing to execute civilians or other participate in genocide. Indeed, I am not aware of any cases of any significant group of soldiers refusing to engage in genocidal activities, or of voicing significant opposition to them. From what I have read, many such operations were carried out by volunteers, and there was generally no difficulty in finding men willing to participate. Explicit compulsion and threat of punishment were simply not necessary.

Supporting the narrative that heinous crimes are committed by evil people is the belief that we, being good people, would never do such a thing. We look at ourselves, we look at our family and friends, we look at those in our community, and for the most part we do not think of them as truly evil people. As such we imagine that the Nazis and any Germans who supported them must have been unbelievably heinous and immoral, as only such an innate inner badness could explain their actions. Of course, most ordinary Germans in the lead-up to the war would have never thought it possible that something like that Holocaust would happen in their enlightened, developed country, and would undoubtedly have been mortally offended had one advanced the proposition that they would do nothing to stop a mass slaughter of civilians. We like to think we are different. Are we really?

Uncomfortably for our self-perceptions, there is considerable evidence concerning the immense power of peer pressure, social normalisation, and obedience to authority in leading people to act in ways which they would in different circumstances denounce as heinous. In his famous experiment, Milgram found that two-thirds of his subjects were willing to administer apparently lethal electrical shocks to others, merely because they were instructed to do so by an experimenter wearing a white lab coat. The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ash Conformity experiments, and The Third Wave experiment, though not without problems, also offer insights into the psychological processes at work in compelling otherwise good people to do horrific things.

The main defence of many Nazi officials and commanders at the Nuremburg Trials was that they had only been following orders (“Befehl ist Befehl“). Although undoubtedly an (unsuccessful) attempt to save themselves from execution, the use of this defence also seems to me to reflect the genuine motivation behind many of these actions – namely that they had been ordered, and it was the job of the soldier and bureaucrat to follow orders. It is also clear, however, that many went beyond the strict ‘call of duty’ in this sense, as there are many documented cases of local civilians participating in or even pre-empting German massacres of Jews, and also of various lower party officials and local administrations vying with each other in developing their own more ruthless anti-Semitic policies. The initiative for the Holocaust came not only from the hatred of those at the top, but also from the longstanding antipathy and crass opportunism of those at the bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.

Allied Responses

Too often we forget a crucial aspect of the Holocaust, namely the (as I regard it) totally inadequate response by Allied and neutral nations to news concerning Nazi persecution of the Jews. Particularly deplorable, in my view, was the Évian Conference, convened by Roosevelt in 1938 to discuss what was to be done regarding the increasing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. It is interesting to note Hitler’s personal reaction to the conference:

“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

This statement parallels other plans and policies of the Nazi regime (e.g. the Madagascar Plan to deport the Jews to the island of Madagascar) to expel the Jews from Europe an resettle them wherever they would be accepted. It is clear from these plans and statements that Hitler really did not care less what happened to the Jews – he just wanted them out of the way. As such, it seems clear to me that the prospects for some arrangement being made were potentially quite good, if only the other nations of the world were willing to help. Apparently thinking along similar lines, an American observer at the conference wrote:

“It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.”

By my reckoning, civilization failed that test. Virtually all nations present, including the British Empire and the United States, refused to agree to any significant increase in the number of refugees they would accept. The Australian delegate T. W. White said “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”, echoing the casual anti-Semitic sentiment that was prevalent at the time through most of the Western World.

The failure of the rest of the world to aid Jewish refugees is highlighted by the case of the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner filled with over 900 Jewish refugees which was successively denied entry to Cuba, the United States, and Canada, before finally being forced to return to Europe. Eventually the UK agreed to take 288 of the passengers, with the remainder settled in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, an estimated 250 of whom were subsequently killed in the Holocaust.

Another conference was held in Bermuda between the UK and the US in 1943 concerning the question of Jewish refugees in occupied Europe. Once again, there was no change in policy: the US refused to increase its immigration quotas, and the UK refused to rescind its ban on Jewish refugees being allowed to enter British Palestine.

In December 1942, the Polish government-in-exile issued a report to the Allied government entitled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland”, in which they outlined evidence concerning the treatment of Jews in occupied Poland. There is much debate concerning exactly how much the allies knew, when they knew it, and what they could reasonably have done – for instance the debate in 1944 about the possibility of bombing the camp or railway yards at Auschwitz (which was decided in the negative). Although the question is a complex one, my impression of the matter is that the Allies took the matter far less seriously than they ought, and put far less than their maximum efforts into helping the Jewish peoples of Europe. Historian David S. Wyman wrote extensively about plausible additional actions the Allies could have taken in his book The Abandonment of the Jews.

None of this is intended to deny the brave actions of many men and women who risked their lives in various ways to shelter Jews and otherwise save them from deportation or execution. Many such persons are remembered by the Israeli state today as being among the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Unfortunately, there were far too few such brave individuals. To many Jews at the time, at must have seemed, as it is written, “surely there is not a righteous man upon earth.”

Conclusions

I think most people draw very much the wrong conclusions from the events of the Holocaust. The message of the Holocaust, in my view, is not that it was a crime so heinous that only a group so uniquely evil and depraved as the Nazis could have committed it. We cannot forget that many high-ranking Nazis were, at least on the surface, decent men who loved their families – indeed, many SS officers brought their families to live with them at the concentration camps.

The true message of the Holocaust, I think is how an underlying long-standing antipathy towards a particular identifiable group can, under the right circumstances, be seized upon and radicalised by a sufficiently motivated and well-organised minority group. It shows us how powerful the words and personality of a charismatic leader can be, and how powerful are social pressures to conform, to obey authority, to keep one’s head down and not make a fuss. Had we lived in that time, with the social pressures as they were and without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that most of us would have acted just as most Germans did – we would have done nothing. Indeed, are there not great calamities and injustices occurring around the world right now to which we react in much the same way?

The events of the Holocaust are, of course, grounded in a specific time and place in history. Nevertheless, I also think that these events exemplify certain primordial characteristics of human psychology – the tendency to conform, to obey authority, to care only for our own, to despise those who are different – of which we should always remain aware and wary. More than anything else, I think the Holocaust illustrates the potentially disastrous consequences of apathy, and the need to be constantly vigilant concerning the suffering of others. In the beautiful words of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

If we are to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust from occurring again, I think it is vitally important to be aware of the true history of these events, and not to sanitise them into simplistic narratives about a wicked few duping and coercing an entire nation to do their evil bidding. If we falsely see the Holocaust as an outcome solely of the Nazi’s unusual depravity and moral shortcomings of mid-20th century Germany, we miss the much broader lessons concerning human nature which this event has to show us, and we likewise ignore the possibility that the same human nature could once again, under the right circumstances, give rise to similarly horrific crimes. As Karl Jaspers said of the Holocaust, in words far more eloquent than mine:

“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again – at any minute.”

Are there Moral Facts or Duties without God?

Synopsis

In this piece I consider the two related concepts of ‘moral facts’ and ‘moral obligations’, contrasting them within theistic and naturalistic worldviews. I first consider what is meant by ‘moral facts’, and argue that, subject to a certain clarification regarding the meaning of ‘mind-independence’, objective moral facts can exist within a naturalistic framework, as facts concerning states of affairs relating to idealised human desires. I then consider the concept of ‘moral obligations’, and argue that such obligations may be consistent with naturalism depending upon how the notion of ‘moral duty’ is interpreted. I also argue, however, that the concept is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic worldview, as it does little beyond what is done by the concept of ‘moral facts’. I conclude with some analysis of how theists and naturalists may respond to the moral skeptic, arguing that neither can provide moral motivation to the skeptic on the basis of reason alone.

Moral Facts

The first question to be considered is whether or not ‘moral facts’ exist. For a moral fact to ‘exist’, what I mean is that the proposition in question is true. Thus, the question I am asking is whether any propositions about moral states of affairs are true, a view called moral realism, as opposed to error theory, the position that all moral propositions are false. (There are also so-called non-cognitivist positions which hold that moral statements are not propositions at all. I will not address such views in this piece.)

To facilitate clarity, let me propose a working definition of objective moral facts:

(1.0) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, which is true irrespective of the mental state (opinion, belief, etc) of any person.

In my personal view, I think it unlikely that objective moral truths as defined in (1.0) exist, as I believe that the rightness or wrongness of any action is always ultimately determined by the mental states of human beings (and potentially other sentient creatures too, but I’ll leave that out of the discussion for now). According to the view that I lean towards, moral facts are propositions concerning the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences, considered from a social point of view (see my earlier piece describing Railton’s Reductive Naturalism for more detail).

In keeping with this view, I would propose a new definition of moral facts:

(1.1) An objective moral fact is an evaluative proposition concerning the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of some action or outcome, the truth of which is not dependent upon the mental state of the agent making the moral judgement in question.

The difference between (1.0) and (1.1) is that, while (1.0) requires that the truth values of all moral propositions be independent of the mental states of any person (i.e. they are facts about nature itself independent of humans, or perhaps something beyond nature), (1.1) only requires that the truth values be independent of the mental state of the person evaluating the claim. Thus, if one person or group thought that genocide or female genital mutilation or ignoring the poor were not morally wrong, by this view they would be mistaken. They would be mistaken because they hold a false belief concerning the truth value of a certain moral proposition, which proposition derives its truth value from particular states of the world concerning which states of affairs would be conducive of the maximal fulfilment of idealised desires, from a social point of view. Moral facts are thus facts about the world with objective truth values independent of the mental states of those evaluating the truth of the claims.

Also note that according to my preferred view, it is even possible for everyone to be mistaken about moral facts. This is because the truth value of moral propositions does not depend (primarily, though it may have some relevance in some cases) upon people’s opinions concerning the truth value of the proposition. Rather, moral propositions derive their truth value from states of affairs concerning idealised preferences of agents considered from a social point of view. It is perfectly possible for entire societies to hold systematically mistaken views regarding such idealised preferences – indeed, I think I can cite some plausible historical examples, though I won’t do so here because I’m fairly sure that doing so would distract the discussion. The main point to note is that, although according to my preferred position, moral facts are subjective in the sense that their truth value is dependent upon the mental states of humans, and not merely upon natural states of affairs outside of humans (as are, for instance, many scientific claims), they are also objective in the sense that their truth value is not determined by the attitudes or preferences of the person making the judgement, or even the collective judgements of a society, since it is possible for an entire society to hold mistaken views concerning what would best satisfy idealised preferences from a social point of view.

Moral Obligations

Having considered objective moral facts, what can we make of the idea of moral duties? It seems that the mere existence of moral facts, absent certain further assumptions, need not necessarily imply any moral duties – after all, there are any number of other propositions which are objectively true, but nonetheless do not entail any duties.

Let me (tentatively) define moral obligations as follows:

(2.0) A moral obligation is a duty to act in a certain way that arises as a consequence of one or more objective moral facts.

While I think this definition goes some way towards capturing our primitive notion of ‘moral obligation’, I am left rather unsatisfied. I still find it very hard to understand what is meant by this notion of a ‘duty to act’ -what does it mean to say that we have a duty to do something? Sometimes duties are acquired on the basis of someone accepting a formal or informal position of some authority and responsibility, and explicitly or implicitly promising to act in a certain way in fulfilment of this role. It seems, however, that this does not really capture the inherent proscriptivity entailed by our concept of ‘moral duties’. That is, we would generally want to say that there is no action that one needs to take in order to acquire moral duties, nor is there any way of eschewing them, as would be possible for other duties by, for example, stepping down from the role in question.

The idea of ‘moral duties’ seems to be that, in some sense, we “must” act in a particular way, regardless of whether or not we want to, or whether or not we agree, or even whether or not we even know about the duty (though some may perhaps dispute this last point, at least my naive notion of ‘moral duty’ would say that even, for instance, feral children would have moral duties, even though they would presumably have no notion of the concept of morality). But what does it mean to say that we “must” act in a certain way? Obviously this doesn’t mean that we are literally unable to act differently, because quite clearly it is possible to act immorally.

One possible answer, traditionally advocated by some theistic philosophers, is to ground the notion of ‘moral obligation’ in the commandments of God. That is, moral obligations are injunctions to act in a particular way which are made by God, and are (ultimately) enforced by God through some sort of final judgement. The notion of ‘moral obligation’ is thus analogous to that of a legal obligation – both derive from some external authoritative source, both are binding regardless of our particular attitudes or opinions, and both are ‘enforceable’ in the sense of there being consequences for disobedience.

This would lead to a definition something like the following:

(2.1) A moral obligation is an enforceable injunction to act in a certain way, deriving from some legitimate authority ‘external’ to human preferences or opinion.

I think there are various problems with approaches such as this to ground moral obligations on God’s commandments. For example, I think it is at least plausible that one may acknowledge an injunction to come from God, but still question whether or not obeying is the right thing to do. It seems to me that God could at least potentially be evil, and that therefore moral duties are not constituted solely in the injunctions of God, but have reference to things outside of God as well. I’m not saying these and other issues are necessarily insoluble, nor do I wish to get distracted into an extensive debate about them here. I just wanted to flag them as being tangentially relevant before moving on.

Let us suppose, however, that we can develop a consistent and plausible theory of theistic moral duties which circumvents some of the difficulties mentioned above. Can the same be done from within a naturalistic worldview? I think doing so is at least conceptually possible – it seems for example that a principle like karma would go some way towards meeting the criteria set out by (2.1), and at least some understandings of karma see it as essentially a completely natural phenomenon. However, I personally do not believe in karma, or any such natural process like it. As such, I would lean towards the view that, if there is no God, then moral obligations as defined in (2.1) do not exist.

In essence, I lean towards the view that the notion of ‘moral obligations’ is essentially unnecessary in a naturalistic universe, and is really only the cause of conceptual confusion. I believe, as I argued above, that objective moral facts as defined by (1.1) are perfectly capable of existing in a naturalistic universe, and that there is simply no place for or need of ‘moral duties’ that go beyond moral facts. So, for example, I do not believe that it is necessary to interpret a statement like ‘you should behave in this way’ as a statement about the existence of moral obligations or duties. Rather, I think it is perfectly consistent and sufficient to interpret this as an assertion of the proposition ‘behaving in this way would promote the maximal fulfilment of idealised preferences from a social point of view’, as well as an injunction to act in accordance with this fact (this notion of moral assertions constituting injunctions relates to another model in meta-ethics that I find persuasive, R. M. Hare’s Universal Prescriptivism, however I do not wish to get too distracted discussing that in detail).

Furthermore, I do not believe that the mere truth of particular moral facts provides any rational obligation to act in accordance with them. That is, those who ignore morality are not necessarily irrational, they are just immoral. Do I believe that the truth of moral facts provides any moral obligation to act in accordance with them? It depends upon what is meant. If by ‘moral obligation’ one means something like (2.1), then no, I do not think moral facts entail moral obligations (since the moral facts are not injunctions from an external authority in the sense required for moral duties). On the other hand, I think a lot of people talk about ‘moral obligations’ more loosely as essentially referring to the same thing as ‘moral facts’, and in this looser sense I do tend to think that moral duties exist, because (as I argue above) I tend to believe that moral facts exist.

Responding to the Moral Skeptic

So where does all this leave us? Certain theists tend to phrase this discussion in terms of having a response to the ‘moral skeptic’, who when confronted with a moral claim, asks question like ‘why should I?’ or ‘what privileges your view over mine?’ I believe that, working within the framework of Railtonian Reductionism that I have outlined here and elsewhere, the naturalist can provide answers that are at least as satisfactory as those the theist can give (I personally think they are much better, but that’s a stronger claim I won’t attempt to defend in full in this piece).

The theist could answer (something like) ‘you should because God commands it, and he is our creator and so has legitimate authority over such things’. It seems to me, however, that the moral skeptic could acknowledge that God exists and mandates particular commandments, but still either dispute that they are morally obliged to follow these commands, or even just fail to care about divine moral obligations, and not feel motivated to live up to them. It seems to me such a person has not committed any mistake of rationality here – they just don’t care what God has to say on the matter, and so far as I can tell this violates no precepts of sound reasoning. It may, of course, make them an immoral person, but there seems little else the theist could say to motivate or convince them.

The naturalist could answer (something like) ‘you should because doing so would better promote the fulfilment of idealised desires from a social point of view’ (this is often described less verbosely using language like ‘promoting human flourishing’ or ‘maximising wellbeing’). Of course, the moral skeptic could acknowledge this to be the case, but still dispute that they have any moral obligation to promote human flourishing, or simply fail to care and see no reason to act in accordance with any moral facts or duties that may exist. As before, such a person may be immoral, but as far as I can see they have not committed an error of rationality, and as such there seems little else that could be said to motivate or convince them.

Thus, at the end of the day, I think that neither the theist nor the naturalist can convince the moral skeptic to follow the precepts of morality using reason alone, which perhaps they may antecedently have wished to do. I think, however, that this inability should not come as a great surprise, as to suppose that rationality and moral motivation are inextricably linked in this way would be to believe that the most rational people are also the most moral, a view which seems highly dubious at best, nor indeed does it even seem consistent with our naive notions about morality. As such, I think that what Adam Smith described as ‘moral sentiments’ are very important – not to ground the existence of moral truths as such, but rather to provide a basis for our caring about them and acting in accordance with them. I think this is necessary regardless of whether one believes in God or not.

‘The Absurdity of Life without God’ – William Lane Craig’s Non-Argument

Synopsis

This piece is a critique of William Lane Craig’s piece The Absurdity of Life without God, in which he attempts to argue that under an atheistic worldview “life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose”. My contention is that Craig not only fails to establish his conclusion, but fails to advance any cogent or coherent argument at all. By ‘argument’, I mean, in essence, a connected series of defended propositions which taken together entail (or purport to entail) the conclusion one is seeking to establish. I argue that Craig’s ‘argument’ consists of little more than rhetorical questions, red herrings, and question-begging assertions. Much of this piece is comprised of quotes from the original piece; I mostly confine myself to making comments and observations. I believe that, perhaps with a small amount of guidance, essentially all readers should be able to easily see that in this piece Craig fails to deliver anything that can reasonably be described as a philosophical argument. At best it is a piece of rhetoric, but certainly it is not a serious argument. Parts of my critique may be somewhat repetitive, for which I apologise, however (at least by my reading) Craig’s piece itself was quite repetitive, as the same assertions are made and questions raised repeatedly. Text in italics are quotes from Craig’s article; regular text are my remarks.

No Ultimate Meaning without Immortality and God

If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life?

This is a question, not an argument or premise in an argument.

Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events?

Another two questions.

If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them?

This is a conditional, the antecedent of which has not been established as true. It is also a question, not a premise or argument.

Ultimately it makes no difference.

This assertion is not established by anything Craig just said, for he didn’t actually say anything, he just asked a series of questions.

Look at it from another perspective: Scientists say that the universe originated in an explosion called the “Big Bang” about 13 billion years ago. Suppose the Big Bang had never occurred. Suppose the universe had never existed. What ultimate difference would it make?

Yet another question. If Craig wishes to establish his contention, he must provide an argument in favour of it. By continually asking questions he is merely shifting the burden of proof to his interlocutors, implicitly calling upon them to outline their own theory of how there can be meaning without God. This is very different to actually providing an argument that such a theory cannot exist, which is Craig’s contention. Merely asking questions does nothing to establish this contention.

The universe is doomed to die anyway. In the end it makes no difference whether the universe ever existed or not. Therefore, it is without ultimate significance.

This is a non sequitur. The fact that the universe will eventually cease to exist, does not imply that its current existence is of no value of significance – unless one presupposes what Craig is attempting to prove, namely that something must be eternal in order to have real meaning or value. In order for this inference to be valid, Craig must defend a premise (something like) ‘that which ceases to exist has no ultimate significance’, which he makes no attempt to do.

The same is true of the human race. Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.

The fallacy here is the same as that which Craig committed above. The fact that something ‘makes no ultimate difference’ (in the sense of changing the final temporal state of affairs of the universe) does not entail that it ‘has no significance’ unless one accepts the premise ‘something has no real significance or value unless it makes an ultimate (i.e. eternal) difference’. Craig does not provide any reason to accept this premise, which I regard as highly dubious at best.

But it is important to see that it is not just immortality that man needs if life is to be meaningful. Mere duration of existence does not make that existence meaningful.

This seems reasonable, though it would also apply to theism: the mere existence of God does not by itself make anything meaningful, unless we also adopt the (highly questionable) premise that God’s existence necessarily imparts meaning to certain things.

If man and the universe could exist forever, but if there were no God, their existence would still have no ultimate significance.

This is an assertion made without any justification.

To illustrate: I once read a science-fiction story in which an astronaut was marooned on a barren chunk of rock lost in outer space. He had with him two vials: one containing poison and the other a potion that would make him live forever. Realizing his predicament, he gulped down the poison. But then to his horror, he discovered he had swallowed the wrong vial—he had drunk the potion for immortality. And that meant that he was cursed to exist forever—a meaningless, unending life. Now if God does not exist, our lives are just like that. They could go on and on and still be utterly without meaning.

Once again, Craig is presupposing his conclusion. He is attempting to argue that life without God is meaningless, by using the premise that an eternal life without God would have no meaning (just like the astronaut’s life). He makes no attempt to connect the analogy to his argument by any actual reasoning – he merely asserts that “if God does not exist, our lives are just like that“, which is precisely the contention he is trying to establish.

We could still ask of life, “So what?”

This is true, but the same applies to life with God. Even if God did exist and even if he did create us, we could still ask of life ‘so what?’ Some further reasoning and explanatory framework would have to be given before a claim like “God’s existence gives meaning to life” could be established.

No Ultimate Value Without Immortality and God

If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please.

Craig’s premise does not entail his conclusion, unless we also adopt the additional premise that ‘it is necessary for one’s behaviour to make an ultimate (eternal) difference in order for it to matter how one lives’. This suppressed premise is, I think, very much open to debate. Craig provides no reason to accept it.

But the problem becomes even worse. For, regardless of immortality, if there is no God, then there can be no objective standards of right and wrong. All we are confronted with is, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, the bare, valueless fact of existence.

Craig seems to be presupposing that objective standards of right and wrong cannot be facts of existence outside of God. But this is precisely what he is attempting to show. He has not given a reason as to why naturalistic facts about the world cannot constitute or entail facts about value.

Moral values are either just expressions of personal taste or the by-products of socio-biological evolution and conditioning.

Craig gives no justification for accepting this dichotomy, which ignores a great many alternate possibilities proposed by philosophers over the centuries. I will not discuss them further here, but if Craig wishes to make the claim that “there cannot be any other possibility”, then he faces a significant burden of proof of ruling out all other possibilities. He makes no effort at all to do this, merely asserting it as established fact.

In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God.

This is a red herring. The question at hand is not who will decide the truth of moral claims. The question at hand is whether moral truths can exist or make sense in the absence of God. It is not necessary to specify the former in order to answer the latter. This is to confuse the question of ‘does the question make sense’ or ‘can a solution exist’, with the quite different question of ‘how could we actually find the answer’ or ‘who would decide the answer’.

No Ultimate Purpose Without Immortality and God

If death stands with open arms at the end of life’s trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless?

These are questions, not arguments or parts of arguments.

If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal no purpose for the universe.

Craig twice asserts his contention, that there is no ultimate purpose in an atheistic universe, but provides no reason to accept it.

And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? Or will it simply peter out someday lost in the oblivion of an indifferent universe?

More questions.

The English writer H. G. Wells foresaw such a prospect. In his novel The Time Machine Wells’s time traveler journeys far into the future to discover the destiny of man. All he finds is a dead earth, save for a few lichens and moss, orbiting a gigantic red sun… But if there is no God, it will end that way, like it or not. This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose.

Craig does not provide any reason as to why an Earth that ends as he describes it cannot have an ultimate purpose. The suppressed premise would presumably be something like ‘a thing must make some everlasting difference in order to have an ultimate purpose’, but Craig does not make any argument for accepting this.

What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose. If there is no God, then our life is not qualitatively different from that of a dog.

Both assertions are question-begging (as no reasoning or justification is given), and also, as far as I can tell, factually wrong (in particular, human and canine lives, I contend, are very obviously qualitatively different).

But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists.

Craig’s argument here seems to assume that the purpose of a thing is inextricably bound up with its mode of coming into being, or facts related to its creation. He does not, however, provide any justification for this belief.

As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality.

This seems little more than derisive and emotive language. I could equally well say that Jesus was “just” a dead guy nailed to a piece of wood. Using such dismissive language avoids having to present any actual arguments or good reasons, and in my view contributes essentially nothing to the discussion.

Conclusion

Craig states near the end of his piece that:

If God does not exist, that means that man and the universe exist to no purpose—since the end of everything is death—and that they came to be for no purpose, since they are only blind products of chance. In short, life is utterly without reason.

I do not think Craig comes even close to establishing this conclusion. Indeed, I have argued that in this piece, all Craig’s ‘arguments’ are either questions, question-begging, or just irrelevant to the central issue. Coming from a highly esteemed Christian apologist with a PhD in philosophy, I find this somewhat surprising and rather disturbing. I honestly wonder if Craig is more interested in appealing to people’s emotions rather than outlining a cogent, clear argument which is actually philosophically defensible. My point here is not that I disagree with Craig’s conclusion – I do, but I have not outlined a clear argument as to why I think there is meaning without God. Here I have merely attempted to show why Craig’s piece is so lacking in establishing its contention. I personally believe that this piece is in broad terms representative of similar pieces found on various apologetics websites purporting to present an ‘argument’ as to why life without God lacks ultimate purpose or meaning, but which in fact mostly consist of little more than rhetorical questions and unfounded assertions. The extent to which this piece is more broadly representative, however, is something I will leave it up to the reader to decide. At the very least, I think that this piece, quite lengthy and published on Craig’s website, is very disappointing coming from someone as renowned and qualified as Craig.

 

 

Refuting Criticisms of Utilitarianism and Effective Altruism

Synopsis

This piece is a response to Robert Martin’s piece critiquing Peter Singer’s views concerning utilitarian ethics and Effective Altruism (EA). I do not address every point raised in this article, but restrict my response to four key lines of argument. First, I argue that Martin’s response presumes a binary conception of morality (moral versus immoral) which utilitarianism itself denies, and as such the criticisms he levels on the basis of this assumption have little relevance to utilitarianism. Second, I consider Martin’s argument that EA ethics inevitably leads to its attempted practitioners experiencing unbearable guilt, and argue that this falsely presupposes both that guilt has any place in a utilitarian ethic, and also that a perfect ideal needs to actually achievable in order to have merit as an ideal. Third, I argue that contra Martin’s argument, it is actually the EA supporter, and not the EA critic, who is more loving and caring towards his neighbour. Fourth, I argue that Martin’s critique of EA fails to adequately come to grips with the fact of opportunity costs in the use of resources, while in contrast EA very naturally and deliberately takes opportunity costs into consideration when making ethical judgements.

Note that the quotes at the beginning of each section are taken from Martin’s original article.

Binary Thinking about Morality

“To be truly objective the maxim, ‘to do the most good we can’ would be binding on all people regardless of whether we believe it or not. Therefore at any point if one is not ‘doing the most good we can’ we are actually acting immorally!”

“Hence justifying simply ‘moving in the right direction’ is inconsistent because it means that you don’t actually need to ‘do the most good we can’. The ethic is reduced to, ‘do the most good you feel you’re able to afford.”

“Effective altruism and the consequentialist ethic of Peter Singer reduces ethics to a kind of communist race to the communal bottom. Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical.”

“My point is that given the claim of the objectivity of this particular ethical system it becomes immoral to do anything which does not save lives of those in extreme poverty.”

Utilitarian ethics has little place for binary notions like “moral” and “immoral”. At best, these may be useful as heuristics to guide behaviour in the face of uncertainty or insufficient time to fully consider the likely outcomes of a particular action in greater depth. They may also serve as shorthand to be used in particularly extreme cases (murder, robbery, rape, gross abuse, etc). In general, however, utilitarianism considers the morality of essentially all actions to be one of degree: action A is morally preferable to action B insomuch as the expected consequences of A serve to increase total utility more than the expected consequences of action B.

Under such an ethical framework, it makes no sense (other than in the purely heuristic sense as outlined above), to assert in any absolute, unqualified way, that an agent has acted “immorally” when they take an action which produces lower expected utility than some possible alternate action. Rather, what they have done is take an action which does less good than another action they may have performed – no more, and no less.

References to non utility-maximising actions as being ‘immoral’ thus exhibit a misunderstanding of the nature of the ethical claims made by utilitarians. Such statements simply fail to say anything non question-begging with respect to the suitability of utilitarianism as an ethical framework; for in criticising utilitarianism for pronouncing every action other than the very best possible one as being ‘immoral’, they are necessarily importing binary absolutist notions of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ which utilitarianism itself rejects. In order to proceed with this line of critique, therefore, it would be necessary to make an argument as to why incorporating such a binary, absolutist notion of ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ actions is necessarily in order to provide a suitable ethical account. Absent some such plausible account as to why this is in fact the case, however, this line of attack on utilitarianism fails.

Effective Altruism and Guilt

“Ethical altruism has some helpful contributions to make in assessing how scarce resources be allocated, but my criticisms would be less savage if Singer didn’t claim it as an ‘objective’ system. If consequentialism and ethical altruism is objective then we are all condemned under a brutal loveless, ethical system which will lead to social improvement in the developing world but at the cost of an ascetic guilt-ridden hypocrisy.”

“In this ethical framework there is nothing to avoid the slide into a guilt-ridden (how can I ever enjoy chocolate again?) asceticism. Nothing beyond the basics could ever be enjoyed because they would be declared objectively ‘immoral’.”

“There is no forgiveness in ethical altruism, if you eat a chocolate for yourself, you are condemned under the objective guilt of knowing that lives could have been saved elsewhere in the world.”

The argument here seems to be that Effective Altruism is unliveable as an ethical system because it is too demanding, meaning that no one can live up to its dictates, and since no one can live up to its dictates, all those who try will inevitably be subject to a great deal of guilt and anxiety over their perceived moral failings.

My first response takes the form of a question: in what way does this constitute a refutation of EA as an ethical framework? EA says, in essence, that 1) it is morally right to produce as much utility/benefit/happiness/etc as possible, 2) certain courses of action, according to our best evidence, produce much more utility/benefit/happiness/etc than others, therefore 3) it is morally good for us to undertake those courses of action. How is this argument in any way undermined by the fact that it may be difficult, or even impossible, to carry out to its fullest extent? It seems even if the EA ethic is unliveable and tends to produce a great deal of guilt, that in no way casts doubt on any of the statements 1)-3). Thus this objection merely comes down to an assertion that the EA framework is inconvenient for us, as we would rather avoid all the bother and potential guilt. Needless to say, this does not constitute a philosophical argument of any substance for the inadequacy of effective altruism as an approach in applied ethics.

My second line of response is to say that this line of rebuttal seems to presuppose that effective altruism is only valid or relevant as a moral principle if it is possible to be a perfect, completely effective altruist. As far as I can see, this principle is totally unfounded and without any basis. One is a better EA to the degree that one accords one’s actions with EA principles. This is a matter of degree, and not a binary decision. This is hardly a radical concept: essentially all normative systems incorporate ideals that are unattainable in their pure form, but which nevertheless constitute a valuable ideal to strive towards, and to focus our thoughts and efforts around, even if we know we will never reach them. A cook my strive to make “the perfect dish”, even if they know such a thing is in reality impossible. In science, philosophy, and the legal system, we often speak of epistemic virtues like objectivity, rationality, and impartiality. Everyone accepts that such virtues, in their pure, idealised form, can never be achieved by any actual person in any real situation. We do not, however, conclude on that basis that the notions or theories themselves are flawed, or that therefore everyone is everywhere and always being “irrational” or “partial”. We accept that these virtues are only ever be exercised in greater and lesser degrees, and that the impossibility of the actualisation of their perfect ideal form does not somehow undermine the concept in its entirety.

A third line of response would be to point out that notions of guilt have very little relevance to either a utilitarian ethic in general, or an EA framework in particular. Guilt is simply of no interest to the EA supporter, except insomuch as it may be relevant to ethical outcomes, either by promoting giving, or inhibiting action by leading to despair or discouragement. The EA supporter views guilt as a real and important aspect of human psychology which one needs to seriously consider. It does not, however, play any critical or central rule, motivating or otherwise, in a utilitarian ethical theory. As such, it is simply false to assert that a person who chooses an action which yields less than maximal utility is “condemned under the objective guilt”. Likewise the notion of forgiveness – this notion just has no place in a naturalistic, utilitarian ethic. Arguing that the utilitarian/EA ethical framework is defective because it has no place for forgiveness is simply to beg the question against utilitarianism, because precisely the point of utilitarianism is that such notions about binary abolute moral/immoral decisions, guilt, and forgiveness are largely irrelevant to the question of morality, which is instead concerned with degrees of goodness determined by the consequences of different possible actions. A cogent critique of utilitarianism as an ethical theory cannot proceed by simply pre-supposing aspects of morality which utilitarianism itself rejects, as this is to simply beg the question.

Misconstrual of Love

“Indeed love is absent from the brutal consequentialist system advocated by Singer.”

“All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). This means I can enjoy a chocolate cake!”

“Yet the imperatives also broadens the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include not just our global neighbours, but also our local ones, meaning we can build a school hall to the betterment of our local society and love our neighbours with cancer and perform research to help them. Therefore caring for the ‘good’ of our neighbours is achieved through both the Christian ethic and consequentialism, but the Christian ethic is more nuanced and sophisticated.”

The sincere Effective Altruist strives to do as much good for their fellow man as possible, knowing that they will never succeed completely, but always attempting to do better, and endeavouring to use the best reason and evidence available to seek out new and better ways to do the most good with the limited resources at their disposal. They seek to serve as many of their neighbours as possible, not discriminating by race, class, distance, or convenience, but deciding purely on the basis of how much help they can do to their fellow man.

The EA critic, it seems, is content to eat chocolate cake, donate to their local school hall, and then maybe also donate some money to EA charities as well, justifying this to themselves by saying that one could never be truly and completely effectively altruistic anyway, and also by pretending, through various logical contortions, that somehow the resources and time spent on their chocolate cake and local school hall could not have actually been used to help the world’s poor and needy anyway. They seek to serve their neighbour, but with a special preference for neighbours who are conveniently located close by (note: I hope this is not taken as a personal attack against anyone – it is not intended as such, I’m just trying to make a point).

I ask the reader in all sincerity: which now of these two, thinkest thou, was most loving?

Ignoring Opportunity Costs

“If Singer and the effective altruism ethic is correct, then virtually every economic, social and moral choice made in Australia today is ‘immoral’”

“This is because when these decisions are compared with saving lives of people in extreme poverty then on the simple consequentialist metric outlined by Singer, saving lives of those in extreme will always ‘win’ i.e. they will always be morally preferable. Therefore when posed with the question, ‘should we build a new road in Melbourne? The answer under effective altruism will be ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’. Should I eat a chocolate cake on my birthday? ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’ Should we build a new school auditorium? Should we treat an injured knee? Should I treat my friend’s cancer? The answer to all these questions is the same – ‘no, because this could save lives of people in extreme poverty’.”

“Moreover other decisions which would have enormously beneficial outcomes for the extreme poor are also rendered ‘immoral’. For example this ethical framework would preclude funding Ebola virus research because the net ‘utility’ of lives saved in developing countries would be greater by providing Malaria nets or immunisation compared with lives saved through Ebola research.”

It is unclear to me what these sorts of statements are attempting to accomplish. If we consider the tripartite core EA argument which I outlined above, which of the three propositions are these arguments supposed to address? They seem to be total non sequiturs. To take the Ebola research example, why would it be a bad thing for EA to recommend that we ought to put resources into bed nets and vaccinations rather than Ebola research, if it is true that the former will save more lives than the latter? Is it because Ebola research will save more lives in the long run, or have other indirect benefits that we haven’t considered? If this is the case, then we have simply denied the premise that vaccinations and bednets will actually do more good than Ebola research, in which case the effective altruist would support the Ebola research as well, so there is no disagreement. On the other hand, if it is agreed that the Ebola research will do less good than vaccinations and bednets, even when factoring in future benefits and side-effects, etc, then what possible justification can there be for preferring the Ebola research over the bednets and vaccinations? How is it a defect of the EA framework for coming to this conclusion?

I wish also to say a few words regarding resource use in developed countries. Taken at face value, the EA ethic would seem to imply that since building roads, medical expenditure – indeed most public expenses of any sort in developed countries – are not as effective uses of funds as donating to the leading EA charities, then we ought not do them. The first point to say here is that it is simply a fact that resources have opportunity costs. Instead of building a new road or paying a doctor’s salary or whatever else, that money could have been used to save lives in the developing world. This is a fact about reality. It has nothing to do with one’s ethical framework, or the worldview one is operating under. Opportunity costs exist, and (needless to say) they don’t go away merely because we don’t like the sound of them, or thinking about them makes us feel uncomfortable about the difficult tradeoffs we must make.

The second point, however, is that it is necessary to exercise some care when making statements like “we should donate money to EA charities rather than build a new road”, because there is in fact no moral agent to which such collective pronouns apply. “We” are not a moral agent; individuals are moral agents. “We” don’t have any money or any ability to choose how it is spent, so it makes little sense to ask how “we” should spend our money as a nation or a community or whatever. What makes sense from a moral framework is to ask how should you and I spend our money, as individual moral agents who can take particular moral actions. So rather than asking what “we” should do, we should be more careful in our thought and speech, and consider exactly who we are saying should do this or that with the resources they have at their disposal.

The third point to make about this comparison is that, as an attempted reductio against EA, it is a very poor one. The reason is because, if EA were applied ‘universally’, or even in a much more systematic way by many more people and organisations, there would be no need at all to redirect money from road building or hospitals (or whatever else) to fund EA charities, because all such charities would already have been fully funded many times over through funding sourced by forgoing other expenses. Every effective charitable cause could be fully funded many times over with the enormous amount of money that could be diverted from non-essential spending by westerners (I leave it to the reader to imagine precisely what is included in this category), without any need to sacrifice truly important things like roads, schools, and hospitals.

 

How to get an Ought from an Is

Synopsis

Is it possible to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’? That is, can we derive normative claims about what ‘should be’ from descriptive claims about what ‘is’? David Hume, and many others since, have argued that there exists an insurmountable gap between these two types of claims. In this piece I will argue that this view is mistaken. I begin by outlining a theory of morality, based on the reductive naturalistic account developed by Peter Railton. I will then outline how, given such a conception of morality, the ‘is-ought’ gap rests on a conceptual confusion, since ‘ought’ claims simply are a certain type of ‘is’ claim, and as such there is no intrinsic problem in deriving one from the other. I then proceed to consider in turn the issues of moral motivation and moral relativism, arguing that the moral framework I have presented is sufficient to provide objective, non-relativist reasons for action for any morally-competent person. In doing so I argue that the notion of a rationally compelling reason for action that is totally independent of the desires or objectives of the agent in question is incoherent, and so the inability of my metaethical theory to provide one does not constitute a limitation of the account, but merely reflects a constraint on what itself reason can do.

Railton’s Reductive Naturalism

‘Non-Moral’ Good

First of all, let me present an account of what an ‘ought’ claim is. The account I present here is a condensed version of that outlined by Peter Railton, and is a form of reductive naturalism. Railton constructs his account of the good in two stages. First, he defines a concept that he calls ‘non-moral good’:

“An individual’s (non-moral) good consists in what they would want themselves to want, or to pursue, were they to contemplate their present situation from a standpoint fully and vividly informed about themselves and their circumstances, and entirely free of cognitive error or lapses of instrumental rationality.”

The basic idea of this account is that what is (non-morally) good for a person is what would satisfy their idealised preferences. By ‘idealised preferences’, I mean the preferences they would want themselves to hold if they were ideally rational, and fully informed about all possible considerations and alternative courses of action, ways of living, consequences of different alternatives, etc. This additional element of abstraction enables the account to incorporate the fact that we often don’t know what we actually want, or what would be good for us, and so frequently hold mistaken beliefs about what will satisfy us or be helpful for us.

Moral Good

Next, Railton generalises this conception of the ‘non-moral good’ into ‘moral good’ by introducing a social dimension:

“X is morally right if and only if X would be approved of by an ideally rational and fully informed agent considering the question ‘How best to maximize the amount of non-moral goodness?’ from a social point of view, in which the interests of all potentially affected individuals were counted equally.”

So, by Railton’s account, the moral good consists in maximising non-moral good from a social point of view, treating the interests of all individuals equally. I think this captures a very significant aspect of morality, which is its intrinsic social, relational dimension. Morality is about incorporating the concerns of others into one’s own decision making, and not privileging one’s own interests over those of others. I think this is key aspect of morality is captured very well in Railton’s account, and this acts as a powerful consideration in its favour.

‘Nasty Preferences’ Objection

What if someone has nasty preferences? What of the person whose preference is to rape little children, or torture animals, or whatever other depraved action we may care to contemplate? If they have a preference to do these things, does that mean that such actions are good by this account?

I believe this objection rests on a twofold failure to understand Railton’s account of moral goodness: an initial failure to understand his notion of ‘non-moral goodness’, and a subsequent failure to understand its extension into ‘moral goodness’. In regard to ‘non-moral goodness’, this objection presumes that what an individual’s preferences are now is the same as what a fully informed and instrumentally-rational version of that individual would want their preferences to be. This assumption is unwarranted, because precisely the point of introducing such a concept  is because the two are often considerably different. If we consider, for instance, the cat torturer or the child molester, we must ask the question: what sort of life would they want themselves to pursue, and what sort of preferences would they desire themselves to have, if they had access to all relevant information about possible alternative lifestyles, approaches to living, sources of meaning, etc? If they could somehow consider all the alternatives and choose carefully which they most preferred, would they still choose child molestation or cat torturing? I consider this to be very unlikely; I just don’t think it is the case that many people would actually find those to be the good life for themselves, if they had proper access to alternatives and the time and mental clarity to consider them. To an extent, this is an empirical question, and one I would welcome further research into. Nonetheless, it seems to me that it is at least highly plausible to argue that at least a sizeable proportion of cases of ‘objectionable preferences’ would be eliminated by simply considering idealised, rather than actual, preferences.

That being said, let us say for the sake of argument that there is some subset of people who, even after considering all the other possible modes of living and their comparative virtues, nonetheless would still prefer a lifestyle which we would view as abhorrent or undesirable in some way (e.g. cat torturing, child molesting, etc). Does Railton’s account require us to say that such a lifestyle (and its constituent actions) are morally good? Not at all, for such an inference rests on a misunderstanding of the second aspect of Railton’s account, the distinction between ‘non-moral good’ and ‘moral good’. Even if we accept the premise that, for some small number of depraved persons, their ‘non-moral good’ consists in doing things which we would consider to be repugnant, when determining the moral good we must also take into consideration the interests of others. If, from a social point of view, these interests outweigh the non-moral good of the individual in question (as I think they inevitably will for the sorts of abhorrent acts mentioned above), then it will still be the case that Railton’s account declares such actions to be immoral. In essence, it is not the ‘non-moral good’ of a particular person which is the most important; what is fundamental to this account are the interests of all individuals considered from a social point of view. And needless to say, the abhorrent preferences of a depraved few will be easily outweighed by the former. Thus, the ‘nasty preferences’ objection fails as a substantive critique of Railton’s account of morality.

Deriving ‘Ought’ from ‘Is’

Dissolving the Problem

Having outlined Railton’s reductive naturalistic account of morality, I now wish to return to the main question with which I began this essay: how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. My answer, in essence, is that there is actually no real problem, because ought claims just are ‘is’ claims. By Railton’s reductive naturalistic account, moral claims constitute a particular subset of factual claims about the way the world is. Specifically, moral claims are statements about what would satisfy the idealised preferences of individuals in a society, treating every person equally. By this account, therefore, moral claims are both ‘ought’ statements and ‘is’ statements – the former is in fact a subset of the latter. The alleged difficulty of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ thus rests on a conceptual confusion, namely presupposing ex ante that the two claims are of a fundamentally different sort – a view which I see no reason to accept. I believe that a perfectly sensible reductive naturalist account of the nature of moral values can be provided (viz Railton’s reductive naturalism), and as such there is simply no difficulty in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’, since ‘ought’ claims just are a particular type of ‘is’ claims.

But how can I make the leap from the statement “X will maximise idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” to the statement that “X is morally good”? Isn’t the first simply a claim about facts of the world – an ‘is’ statement – while the latter is an evaluative claim – an ‘ought’ statement? How to we get from the one to the other? Asking the question in this way is, I think, betraying precisely the sort of conceptual confusion which I am here attempting to defuse – namely, that there is some unbridgeable gap or ultimate chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. This is precisely what I am denying. I am arguing, in fact, that the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view” is the same as the set of actions and states of affairs which satisfy the predicate “is morally good” (caveat: I am not actually claiming the sets are precisely equal. More carefully, I am saying that the sets are close enough for this account of morality to be a very good one).

Moore’s Open Question Argument

It is important to understand that I am not saying that these two things (‘moral goodness’ and ‘maximising social preferences’) are the same by definition (this point formed the basis of Moore’s famed ‘Open Question Argument’ against ethical naturalism). Rather, what I am saying is that we begin with this concept called ‘morality’, which is rather fuzzy and confused in some ways, but which we nonetheless seem to posses some basic intuitive understanding of. We then think very hard, look around at the world, and ask the question: “does this concept of ‘morality’ refer to anything real?” That is, we ask ourselves whether we can give a sensible account of this thing we call ‘morality’, or, alternatively, will we find that no sensible account can be given, and that like so many other naive concepts (such as bodily humours, phlogiston, absolute space and time, élan vital, and many more), we must consign morality to the dustbin of history? What I am arguing is that in thinking hard about our concepts and looking around at the world, we do find that there is in fact something which matches up quite well to our notion of morality, and as such our conception of morality is validated – not by definitional fiat, but by conceptual analysis and empirical investigation.

It is true that the account of morality that Railton provides is (as he calls it) a ‘reforming definition’, by which he means that it does not, absolutely and in all respects, match up perfectly to our naive, unreflective conceptions of morality. However Railton also argues, as do I, that the account is sufficiently close to that of ‘naive morality’, and also has sufficient explanatory power, such that we are adequately justified in maintaining the concept of morality and declaring that we now have a reasonable account of what it refers to. This contrasts, say, with the concept of a ‘vital life force’, which was not found to match up sufficiently with any real-world phenomenon, and as such the idea was discarded.

Water and H2O are not defined to be the same thing – we know they are the same thing because we went out into the world and looked, and discovered that they are the same. I am saying that something analogous can be done with morality: we begin with a naive concept, we go out and see if there is anything that is a reasonably close match for this concept that we can give a sensible account of. Since we are able to do this, the concept of morality is validated, and we are affirmed in our use of it (and indeed our understanding of it is heightened). Morality refers to idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view. We have not defined it to mean that – we examined our concepts, we examined the world, and we matched the two together. We constructed an empirical explanatory account of the concept of morality, just like we have done in the sciences for many other entities.

A Restatement

So, bringing the threads together, how do we make the leap from the positive to the normative? I am saying that there is no leap. We have constructed an account of the normative by which we understand that it just is one class of claims about matters of fact. The problem is simply dissolved; there is no ‘is-ought’ gap under a reductive naturalistic metaethic.

Reasons for Action

Rationality and Moral Motivation

It is important to understand that there is one thing which this account of morality does not do: by itself, it does not provide us with any universal reason to be moral, or even to care about morality at all. At this point, I will say that if what one expects morality to provide is some reason for action which is in some way ‘binding’ or persuasive to all rational agents of any sort, regardless of their particular goals or objectives or preferences, then one will be disappointed, because this is something this account does not provide. I do not, however, consider this to be any real problem, because I think that the notion of something which is universally rationally compelling to all agents, regardless of their particular preferences or goals, is simply incoherent. I understand ‘rationality’ to mean “taking effective means to one’s ends” (as borrowed from D. A. Lloyd Thomas). By this understanding, there is simply no fact of the matter as to what is ‘rational’ for an agent to do or pursue absent some predefined ‘end’ or ‘purpose’ or ‘objective’.

Appeals to Teleology

Taking an Aristotelian perspective on the matter, one might say that there is a fact of that matter as to what a rational agent should do, even absent any particular end or objective which they hold to, and that relates to the agent’s underlying ‘innate’ teleology, or purpose in being. For example, Aristotle famously argued that humans are rational creatures, and so our teleology lies in the pursuits of reason, wherein man achieves his greatest excellence. Though I think there are some valuable insights to be gleaned from this approach, overall I find it unpersuasive as a metaethical theory as it fails to provide any clear notion of what constitutes an innate teleology or whence such a notion can be derived. Perhaps a notion of teleology could be constructed via some reductive account of the moral good, for example by using aspects of Railton’s account. However in that case the notion of teleology is doing no explanatory work, as it is merely being defined in the same manner as morality, rather than providing a more ‘ultimate’ basis out of which the latter can be defined or understood. As such, ultimate teleology is either a mistaken concept (as it does not refer to anything real), or an unnecessary one (because it is merely parasitic on the concept of morality, instead of underpinning it as we had hoped).

Though there is much more to say on the notion of teleology, I will forebear at present, and merely summarise this portion of the essay by restating that I do not believe there is any fact of the matter as to what it is rational for an agent to do sans any account of their particular interests or desires. As such, I do not believe there are any universally-compelling reasons to be moral. On the other hand, I also do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons to believe in the truths of mathematics or logic or science, or indeed to care about truth or good arguments at all. In short, I do not think there are any universally-compelling reasons for anything at all. Every reason of any sort must, at bottom, make some sort of appeal to a pre-existing goal or value or presumption; reason always has to begin somewhere. As such, I think a notion of objective-independent reasons which are rationally compelling to all rational agents independent of their goals or desires is simply incoherent, and is not something we should demand from an account of morality.

Reasons to be Moral

I must emphatically emphasise, however, that I am not saying that we do not have good reasons to be moral. I believe there are immensely good reasons to be moral, none of which are particularly innovative on my part: acting morally helps others, it allows us to reduce suffering and promote human flourishing, it brings us joy and helps us to become better people (in either a moral or non-moral sense), etc. Are these not good enough reasons to care about being moral and doing good? I think they should be perfectly good reasons, perfectly sufficient reasons for action, for any morally competent person. They will not, of course, be compelling to a person who does not already possess some fundamental, underlying ‘moral competence’, but why is this a concern? Do we really expect that the reason people lack moral motivation is that they are actually irrational; that there exists some ‘killer reason’ or ‘overwhelming argument ‘ which would cause them to become morally motivated by the sheer force of reason? To me that sounds absurd on the face of it, and even more absurd in the light of the analysis I have given about the nature of rationality. I think we all have ample reasons to be moral. If those reasons are uncompelling to a particular person (assuming they understand them), it is because said person is simply not morally competent. That is unfortunate, but is a defect of that person’s character, and not of the account of morality which I am here defending.

Relativism and Subjectivity

A Non-Subjective Morality

In metaethical discussions, the question of relativism inevitably rears its ugly head. Is the account that I have here presented of the meaning of and basis for moral claims a relativistic one? That is, when I say “it is wrong to murder” or “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a subject personal preference against murder? Is it simply a question of taste – some people like murder and some people don’t, and we just happen to be fortunate enough to live in a society in which most people share my distaste for it?

To answer this question: no, I do not think that moral claims are subjective or relative in this way. By the account that I have defended, moral claims are statements of fact which can be true or false. Their truth or falsity depends upon the manner in which the world is constituted, including certain properties of human beings, their desires and preferences, how these preferences are socially distributed, etc. These facts are objective, in the sense that they are not dependent upon the minds of those making the judgement. It may be the case that peanut butter is delicious ‘for me’ and disgusting ‘for you’, but by Railton’s account of morality, it cannot be the case that X is morally right ‘for you’ (say because you dislike murder), but not morally wrong ‘for me’ (say because I’m not bothered by murder), since what is morally good is determined by facts of the world which are invariant to the perspective of the person considering them. Of course, different people may disagree about what these moral facts are, but disagreement does not imply that there is no fact of that matter at all.

What maximises idealised preference satisfaction from a social point of view does so regardless of whatever your or my attitudes about murder or anything else might happen to be. As such, this account of morality is not relativist, and does not degenerate into mere preferences. (Note: the concept of ‘non-moral good’ is subjective in this way, because it depends on the agent’s idealised preferences, however the notion of ‘moral good’ is not subjective in this way, because it depends upon the preferences of all individuals, and not merely the subjective attitude of the person making the ethical judgement).

Moral Injunctions

When I make the injunction “you ought not murder”, am I merely expressing a personal, subjective attitude towards murder, which at base is no more or less justifiable than any other possible attitude? I do not think so. Rather, what I am doing is making a statement concerning what would maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, which is an objective claim that is not dependent upon any single person’s attitudes towards the claim. Now, of course, whether or not the person whom I am addressing cares about what is right or wrong is completely separate question; they may accept that murder does not maximise the idealised preferences of individuals from a social point of view, but simply not give a damn. That is unfortunate, and I would of course try to persuade them that they should care (by appealing to the ‘reasons to be moral’ I outline above), but as I previously argued, if my interlocutor does not share at least some fundamental concern about the welfare of others, or a desire to do good (or something like that), then there is simply no reason I can give  them which will rationally ‘compel’ them to care about doing good. As I argued, the notion of ‘bootstrapping’ any motivation from ‘pure reason’ in this way, without any reference at all to pre-existing desires or concerns, is simply incoherent. This, however, is not a limitation of my account of morality – it is imply a fact about the limits of reason. Nor does it follow that moral injunctions are mere statements of preferences. They are statements of facts about the world, which one may or may not happen to care about. If one does not care about these moral facts, that does not necessarily make one irrational. But it does make one immoral, in an objective, mind-independent sense.

Moral Obligations

What of objective moral obligations? Do they exist, and do they have any normative force? Can we make sense of them within the framework I have outlined? I would argue that the notion of ‘moral obligation’ is mostly (if not entirely) redundant, as to say that someone has a ‘moral obligation to do X’ is just to say that ‘it is morally good to do X’ or ‘you ought to do X’, which, in turn, simply means that ‘doing X will maximise the satisfaction of idealised preferences from a social point of view’. As such, I do not believe that the concept of ‘moral obligation’ offers any addition insights or provides any additional moral or motivational force beyond that which existing concepts already possess, and so while I think objective moral obligations are perfectly compatible with a reductive naturalist account of moral value, I also think they are a rather superfluous addition.

Conclusion

In this essay I have argued that there is no fundamental problem with deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is’ claims, because ‘ought’ statements are in fact merely a special type of ‘is’ statements. In making this argument I first outlined Peter Railton’s reductive naturalist conception of moral good, and defended it against the objection of ‘nasty preferences’. I then argued that on the basis of this account, the ‘is-ought’ gap can be dissolved as resting on a conceptual confusion, because ‘ought’ claims simply are a special type of ‘is’ claims. Morality is validated, I argued, on the basis of our ability to construct a plausible naturalistic account of its relationship to objects in the real world. I then considered the issue of moral motivation, arguing that this account of morality will not motivate those who lack even the most basic moral competence, but that this does not constitute a limitation of the account, as the notion of a reason that is rationally compelling to all agents regardless of their personal preferences is simply incoherent. Finally, I considered the issue of subjectivity, arguing that the account of morality I outlined  is not subjective, and does not rest merely on the attitudes of those making moral statements.