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.

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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.