Normative Ethical Subjectivism: A Moral Theory

As a follow up to the requests for further elaboration at the end of my last blog, I have decided to flesh out a framework of where I currently stand on my ethical theory. This discourse is by no means exhaustive of every moral issue or dilemma and my theory is still in development, but it does seek provide a general foundation for addressing derivative moral concerns. ?????? is primarily an ancient history blog site, as that is my main background of study. However, morality is a difficult subject about which even scientifically minded skeptics disagree, and apologists all too frequently push the moral issue as a talking point. If we are going to be prepared to confront them on this tactic, we need to each work out a solid stance on this issue. Here is my current perspective on the subject:

Humans are distinct as a species for having both the ability and the tendency to label certain actions and things as “good” or “bad” and “right” or “wrong.” In addition, we often make statements of necessity or obligation, arguing that one “ought” or “should” behave in a certain way. What are the implications of such propositions and why do humans make them? When I say something is “wrong,” do I mean that it is incorrect in some objective, factual sense, or do I mean that it is undesirable and violates an assumed preference? When I say that one “ought” to do something, what is the basis for the necessity? Typically, “moral behavior” is characterized as pro-social, altruistic, and non-violent (or only defensively violent), whereas “immoral behavior” is characterized as anti-social, selfish, and violently aggressive. Why have we come to conceive of morality in this way and how might we justify it?

The theory I advance here is what I have termed “Normative Ethical Subjectivism.” As a naturalist I reject any metaphysical or non-empirical grounds for an ethical theory. Many argue that this causes an impasse, since they claim that empiricism cannot account for value statements. However, I think this depends on how we frame and conceive of morality. To approach the issue I adopt a Goal Theory approach to ethics. Humans are not impartial, disinterested subjects but are beings with needs and preferences. Moreover, humans are a social species of shared “normative” goals, which we obtain as a community. Goals are most efficiently reached not through impulse, but through careful reflection and strategy. The moral life is the strategic approach to best achieving one’s ethical objectives. I argue that since our goals as a species are normative, they provide a common basis for us to evaluate and agree upon moral propositions. Self-interest, far from encouraging immoral behavior, when applied rationally is actually the foundation for the pro-social and altruistic behavior that we typically label as “moral.” Ultimately, I offer a teleological approach to ethics, where morals serve as means to the end of happiness and self-actualization. If one conceives of morality as something other than this, then I happily elect to be amoral under such alien conceptions and see no clash in the debate.


In order to lay out my ethical theory, I will first need to specify what I mean by certain key terms. The definitions I provide may not be shared by all and some will no doubt view these terms differently. However, for the sake of this discourse, I ask that one understand the terms as I have provided them in order to understand how they relate to my ethical theory. You are more than free to see these terms differently in another context, but there will be confusion about what I mean, if you do not follow the terms as I have laid them out here.

Objectivism: A prevalent term brought up in moral debates is the question of whether morality is “objective.” This term often leads to confusion, since “objective” can mean a variety of things, such as “impartial” or “factual” or “true regardless of opinion.” I find all of these descriptions to be unhelpful, and so I will provide my own instead. When I say that something is “objective,” I mean that it exists outside the mind of a personal subject and is externally substantive. For example, gravity is objective, since gravity would exist regardless of any observer. However, beauty is not objective, since beauty is dependent on the perception of a subject.

I do not find morality to be “objective” for the following reasons: 1) Impersonal natural forces do not exhibit moral affinities. If they did, why not expect hurricanes to curve around cities or fire to burn away from people? Instead, nature functions like a cold, indifferent machine, harming the good and bad alike. 2) The only things that do exhibit moral affinities are sentient beings, which suggests that morality is a conception of the mind, but not some external property of the universe.

Subjectivism: Often times “subjective” is stigmatized by the notion that it means arbitrary or unfactual. However, this is misleading. Beauty is subjective but that doesn’t mean that there are no principles or patterns governing aesthetics. Rather, subjective, as I use it here, means that something is cognitive and exists solely within the mind. Subjective things can only be said to exist when a personal observer conceives of them. Morality in my theory is “subjective,” because it exists solely as concept of human thought. However, this hardly implies that it is random nor does it entail by definition that it would even be relative. As we will see, subjective things can be normative, insomuch as every personal subject would conceive of them the same, which can provide a basis for making truth claims about them.

Ethics vs. Morals: Before moving further, I wish to distinguish here between “ethics” and “morals.” These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and are often given different meanings in different discourses. For the sake of this discourse, I will define ethics as trans-situational goals that serve as guiding principles and standards for evaluating what is desirable. Morals are the strategic means by which one meets an ethic.

When someone claims that you “should” or “should not” do a certain action, such as: “You should not murder people,” what is often ignored is that this is actually a conditional sentence, which omits the “if” clause. In my theory, ethics serve as the protasis “if” clause, whereas morals serve as the apodosis “should” clause. To complete the example: “If you value human life, then you should not murder people.” Here the guiding ethic is respect for human life and the strategic means for achieving this ethic is refraining from lethal behavior. To answer Hume’s famous “is/ought” dilemma, ethics function as the “is” in my theory, whereas morals function as the “ought.”

However, this does not mean that all ethics independently exist apart from each other. In fact, ethics follow a regress where higher ethics determine derivative ones. For example, the ethic of promoting human safety is dependent upon the ethic of valuing human life. I will argue below that the ultimate ethic, to which all other ethics regress, is personal self-actualization, which is the common ethic towards which all of humanity strives. This ethic exists alone per se and is the fundamental “is” governing all “ought” statements. 

Ethical Realism: In ethical discourse the term “realism” is often used to describe whether a moral theory claims that moral propositions are factually true or false. This term is often confusing, however, since it is unclear in what sense the proposition is true or false. Is it true in the sense that it describes an external property of nature or in the sense that it describes a cognitive goal and efficient means for achieving it? Due to this ambiguity, I will mostly exclude the term “ethical realism” from this discourse. Nevertheless, if by ethical realism one means that a moral does factually obtain an ethical goal, then my theory arguably promotes ethical realism.

Normative Ethics: To explain how my theory of ethical subjectivism does not make morality random or arbitrary, I will argue that ethics can be “normative.” That is, ethical goals can be biologically and psychologically shared among humans to such an extent that all people, when fully informed of themselves, would have a common ethic upon which to base their morals. Given a common criterion, an action can be said to be right or wrong based on whether it promotes or violates a normative ethic. In this way, humans can make moral propositions about good and bad behavior that refer to no external property of the universe, but still bears implications of factual truth, insomuch that they do or do not abide by a common goal.

For identifying a common set of ethics, normative to all human beings, I shall adopt Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as an illustrative model. Maslow observed that human behavior can be reduced to actions meant to serve certain psychological and biological needs. Furthermore, these needs follow a regress from lower to higher needs, where a human first seeks to obtain physiological survival, but later seeks such goals as social acceptance and love. The highest goal is self-actualization, which is the psychological fulfillment and harmony of a person’s needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy provides a useful basis of common goals shared among humans that can serve as a set of criteria for evaluating whether certain actions are right or wrong in fulfilling these needs. In other words, the hierarchy provides a set of normative ethics upon which all morals are derivative and upon which all moral propositions can be evaluated.

Goal Theory

Given the framework I have provided thus far, it can be said that morals serve as “means to an end,” where ethics are the ends and the ultimate end is our self-actualization as human beings. Since then morals serve as strategies for achieving ethical goals, it would be helpful and descriptive to categorize it under a “Goal Theory” teleological approach to ethics. The philosophical inspirators for my approach range from Aristotle and Epicurus to Bentham and Mill to Richard Carrier, from whom I have adapted the term.

Rational Self-Interest

As the common motive for achieving self-actualization, I assert that all humans have an inherent self-interest. Humans are not impartial subjects, but rather goal-seeking beings who have certain preferences. However, simply because we all have self-interest does not mean that we all act according to “rational self-interest.” Humans often act on impulse or poor decision-making and commit immoral behavior that actually works against their goals. The moral life, in my theory, is one that employs critical reflection and rational deliberation in order to guide one’s behavior towards actions that actually serves one’s ethics.

Individual Morality

Given the terms as I have defined them above, each person has an immediate interest in living a moral life. We all have ethics, which serve as the goals of our behavior. These ethics are both normative and psychologically and biologically ingrained within us. Each person has a natural interest in providing for his or her basic biological needs, finding security, maintaining good social standing, promoting emotional esteem, and ultimately achieving self-actualization.

When a person lives morally, they do not recklessly indulge in appetite, but instead maintain an integrity that allows them to strategically meet their needs with a higher probability of success. For example, I could indulge in my lower, short-term desires to eat and drink excessively, but this would violate my higher, long-term goals of health and well-being. The moral life of integrity must be one of critical reflection, where a person deliberates on the long-term consequences of their actions and considers whether they do or do not provide for the things that they actually desire in life.

Individual vs. Social Morality 

Of course, I have only provided a justification so far for having personal and self-serving moral life. But how can rational self-interest explain concern for others and altruistic behavior? Don’t individual and social interests conflict? In actuality, they do not. In fact, human society exists as a common and efficient means for providing for individual needs through group behavior. When examined, there is no considerable conflict between individual and social morality, since one merely serves as the extension of the other. Below I provide seven reasons for why rational self-interests can justify pro-social behavior:

Trade: The first and foremost foundation for any society is the economic benefit obtained through a division of labor. Humans are capable of producing far more wealth as a group than they are as individuals. Since our hierarchy of needs requires economic goods to provide for them, any individual following his or her rational self-interest has immediate grounds for desiring a society, since society provides for a more productive, opulent, and wealthy society that accommodates both individual and normative goals.

Security: Society next provides for a better guarantee of security. In a state of nature, no force of law or communal code protects one from the violence of another. The fruit of one’s labor can be stolen without the recourse of justice, and a life lived in mutual animosity very quickly becomes nasty brutish and short. However, society provides a basis for establishing a code of behavior and means of enforcing that code, which allows humans to have greater security as a society than as individuals. Some social systems, of course, achieve this better than others, but this does not change the fact that any rationally self-interested person has an immediate interest in a society, based on the probability of heightened security.

Insurance: I have pointed out that society provides a greater economic benefit than solitude. However, occasionally I receive the objection that this provides no grounds for being altruistic towards those who are economically inefficient, due to such circumstances as being crippled. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it follows completely from rational self-interest to protect and provide for those who are disadvantaged. This is due to the fact that providing for such services establish a form of social insurance. By helping and promoting the aid of those who are less fortunate, I have a heightened certainty that if I should fall into misfortune that the same insurance will cover me. I take care of the sick and elderly today knowing that by establishing such a system that I can have the expectation of being cared for when I am sick and elderly. Therefore, such forms of altruism are actually in complete accord with rational self-interest.

Self-Image: Through behaving in a pro-social manner, I will gradually receive greater trust, respect, and cooperation from those around me. A socially moral person draws others towards him or her, whereas a socially immoral person repulses them. It follows that if one desires the benefits of social interactions, they will meet it more through socially moral behavior.

However, an important objection can be raised here that it may be to one’s benefit to only appear moral, but in fact to operate by an immoral lifestyle. Freeloaders are the embodiment of this behavior, who seek to disguise their immoral behavior in order to parasite off of the benefits of society. Plato perhaps took this concept to its extreme application with his thought experiment about the Ring of Gyges. Gyges had a ring that made him invisible so that he could commit any crime without being caught as the culprit. In effect, Plato removed self-image as a motive for moral behavior.

Below I will provide further grounds for behaving in a pro-social manner that transcend self-image.

Risk Management: It may be possible that one can conceal anti-social behavior for a time and freeload off of society. But I run a risk by choosing to do so. Since such behavior is destructive to others, I must live in constant fear of being caught and facing retaliation. Whereas, if I behave in a pro-social manner I can live with the reassurance that even if all of my actions were visible and made known to the public that they would have no reasonable grounds for retaliating against me. However, the anti-social life must always remain in the shadows seeking to disguise its true nature, running the risk each day that full exposure and resulting destructing come upon it.

Compassion: So far I may have created the illusion that rational self-interest only operates for a callous, material benefit, with compassion never serving as a motivation. However, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, humans are a social species who are emotionally dependent upon each other. By behaving in a social manner, I will have more genuine friendships and lasting life relationships that serve my rational self-interest for emotional well-being. In contrast, if I am anti-social I will create only shallow relationships, become incapable of true compassion, and ultimately be left in despair and loneliness.

In fact, compassion can reveal how certain actions, such as moral suicide, which would seem to defy self-interest, are actually in accord with rational self-interest. By sacrificing myself for another, I am trading a life of mere survival that includes the regretted loss of a loved one for the higher value of compassion without which life would not be worth living. Sacrifice can at times be the highest form of rational self-interest, since it can serve as the pursuit of one’s higher goals over lower goals when the two are brought into conflict.

Self-restraint: Ultimately by living with integrity, reciprocating towards others, and embracing compassion, I will achieve a far more disciplined life than merely acting on violent impulses. Another common misconception is that the tyrant’s life is the most self-serving, but this once more is not true. The tyrant engages in his or her lower appetites, lashing out on impulse, and ultimately lacking any peace-bringing integrity. A tyrant’s life is in fact the most miserable, plunging into a downward cycle of anti-social behavior, making it harder and harder to restrain one’s lusts, and ultimately shaping an irredeemable character where one has learned no capacity to serve one’s higher ethics.

Tribalism vs. Humanism

Above I have provided grounds for why it serves one’s rational self-interest to live morally within a society. However, the objection can still be raised that this only justifies pro-social behavior towards one’s immediate neighbors. After all, I benefit from those in my own community, but what about those across the globe? What about those in enemy nations? Does rational self-interest only provide for selective tribalism?

The truth is that most of human history has been a series of frequently brutal tribal conflicts. However, this was severely changed during the 20th century, which brought about two major changes: the capacity for mutually assured destruction through advanced weapons and the capacity for mutually beneficial trade through globalization. The series of increasingly bloody conflicts in the 20th century revealed that it was mutually beneficial for all nations to seek international means of maintaining peace. In fact, World War III, which could have been the most destructive conflict in human history and even a full apocalypse, was prevented largely due to the threat of mutually assured destruction. Furthermore, with increased means of global trade, almost the whole world is now one extended community. When one can profit from peacefully interaction with those across the globe and only suffer through open conflict, the result is that humanism best serves rational self-interest.

Tribalism is a thing of the past, suited to an era where violent conflicts could gain temporary plunders, but now in the face of conventional weapons and global trade benefits, humanism is the only rational and desirable course for the future. We enjoy the benefit of living in what is perhaps the first generation in history of a humanist global community. People today are more moral and self-actualized than any other period of history, and the future will likely be better.

The NES Moral Conclusion

Above I have outlined my theory of Normative Ethical Subjectivism. My theory explains how morality does not need to be rooted in some external property of the universe to still provide significant and accurate propositions about our goals. Ethics and morals are inherently subjective, as they depend upon a personal observer with preferences and rational self-interest. However, far from detracting from the importance of morality, it in fact makes morals far more relevant, since they serve as means to the end of our self-actualization. Ethics can further be normative with the result that we will all have a common basis for evaluating moral propositions. It is true that moral relativism can still exist with this structure, but it will largely diminish as experience teaches us more and more about what actions more efficiently satisfy our desires.

What we find from a teleological approach to ethics is that most of the civil, pro-social and altruistic behavior that we commonly label as “good” and “moral” in fact serves a rational utility towards achieving our individual and social goals. The moral life is one of critical reflection and integrity. Through serving a common ethic, humans can obtain trade, security, and insurance. It is true that a person can freeload off the benefits of society if they project a misleading self-image, but even this will deny them the compassion and restraint necessary for a self-actualized life, and there will always be the risk of being exposed. At this point, it could still be argued that this only explains morality within groups but not between groups. After all, even gangs have internal moral codes, but why value all human beings? However, the economic achievements made possible through globalization, as well as the horrendous and undesirable consequences of modern warfare, reveal how universal human rights and thus Secular Humanism is the optimal and only fulfillment of the NES Goal Theory approach to morality.

One objection that could still be raised, however, is that I actually have not provided a basis for morality at all, but merely a strategy for serving self-interest. It would depend, however, on how one conceives of morality. If one defines morality as something that serves its own end that we have a “duty” to abide by even if it makes us ultimately unhappy, then perhaps rational self-interest would serve no point. Nevertheless, in my ethical perspective, this would be the height of any conceivable evil, since morality will have been turned upside down from a means to an end of serving humans to making humans a mere means for satisfying what is “moral.” What is even more nightmarish is the thought of placing some divine being at the head of such a despairing moral system, where we serve as mere objects of his pleasures and lust, commanded to obey any moral law that he whims, even if doomed to receive no personal gain from it.

Job is the perfect example of this warped an alien view of morality, the man who sacrificed everything for the sake of what was “moral” without any rational expectation to benefit from it. I can vigorously say that I would not only be an amoralist in Job’s situation, but would gladly elect to be an immoralist under such a despairing, irrational, and worthless moral code.

-Matthew Ferguson

18 thoughts on “Normative Ethical Subjectivism: A Moral Theory

  1. Hi Matthew. That makes very interesting reading. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with you. I’ll concentrate on what I see as the central problem. As very often is the case, the problem is caused by words having more than one meaning.

    When someone claims that you “should” or “should not” do a certain action, such as: “You should not murder people,” what is often ignored is that this is actually a conditional sentence, which omits the “if” clause. In my theory, ethics serve as the protasis “if” clause, whereas morals serve as the apodosis “should” clause. To complete the example: “If you value human life, then you should not murder people.”

    I say we need to distinguish between between moral and non-moral “shoulds” (or “oughts”).

    Suppose I say, “If you want to catch the train, you should leave now.” I’m not imputing to you any moral obligation to leave now. I’m just telling you how to achieve a goal that you might have (namely, catching the train). In the same context I might leave out the “if” clause and just say, “You should leave now.” This statement would still be telling you how to achieve your goals, but I’m now taking it for granted that I know your goals, so I needn’t make the statement conditional on them. But again, I have no moral obligation in mind, or indeed any sort of obligation. I don’t think you are obliged to leave now. I just think you are well-advised to do so.

    Now consider a case of moral obligation. If I moralistically shake my finger at you and sternly say, “You should give money to charity” or, “You should pay your taxes”, I’m not telling you how to achieve your goals. I’m saying you have a moral obligation to do these things, even if acting in this way will not help you achieve your own goals. Note that these “should” statements don’t differ grammatically from the earlier unconditional one. It’s the context (and what we know about the different human attitudes to the different actions) that makes the difference in meaning. Try replacing “should” with “have a moral obligation to” in each of the sentences. In the earlier ones it completely changes the meaning of the sentences. In the latter ones it doesn’t.

    I think you are conflating moral and non-moral shoulds, drawing valid conclusions about non-moral shoulds, but then erroneously applying these conclusions to moral shoulds as well. To avoid accidentally conflating the moral and non-moral senses of the words “should” and “ought”, I recommend avoiding those words and instead using the term “moral obligation”.

    • Hey Richard, you raise a valid point and one that might help resolve some of our disagreement. You distinguish between “non-moral shoulds,” such as catching the train, and “moral shoulds,” such as paying taxes. You claim that the distinction is that one has a moral obligation. You are correct to an extent that I am conflating the two, but this is actually because in my theory there is no difference.

      This is why I clarified in the blog that I do not believe in moral duty or obligation, as you put it. Both actions are correct because they serve strategic goals: catching the train helps one achieve the goal of their desired transportation and paying taxes helps promote the institutions that provide for one’s public safety, in addition to eliminating the risk of being caught free-loading. Both actions are correct in the same way, since they both serve a utility towards a desirable goal. Take the election today as another example. One of the biggest issues is the question over which candidate will promote a stronger economy. However, we do not want a stronger economy because of some abstract obligation to have one, but because a stronger economy is desirable for fulfilling our material needs.

      Now, one could argue that I have not provided a theory of morality at all, but simply a strategic method for obtaining one’s goals. This is why I specified at the beginning of the blog that it depends on how you conceive of morality. It is correct, if you define morality as entailing some sense of abstract “duty” or “obligation,” that my theory is amoral and that there are no “moral shoulds.” However, if you conceive of morality as a strategic means to the end of achieving one’s ethical goals, then I am a complete moralist, as I am extending moral considerations to every decision and eliminating all “non-moral shoulds.” I am fine with either classification, so long as one understands that the critical issue is not the label, but the teleological structure that I have laid out to provide a set of criteria for evaluating one’s decisions.

      Apologists use the moral argument to create the false impression that without a deity commanding us, we would have no criteria upon which to base our moral decisions. However, this completely ignores the fact that most of what we consider to be moral behavior, such as not murdering or not stealing, actually serves a practical and rational goal, for the reasons of trade, security, insurance, etc. that I have provided. Thus, a practical moral code can be reached purely through rational self-interest and evaluation of normative goals, with no mysticism or divine inspiration necessary (in fact, such superstitions actually clouds moral judgment with unnecessary baggage and irrationality).

      You describe yourself as a moral error theorist, but I am assuming that you, like most people, do not want people to murder, steal, rape, etc. Am I correct in this assumption? If so, on what criteria do you base your lack of preference for such behaviors? When I advocate against such behaviors, it is not because I am abstractly obligated to do so, but because I am well-advised to do so, given my goals. This is why I stated in my earlier blog that we are technically at complete liberty to create an anti-social destructive world or a pro-social prosperous world. I choose the latter because it serves my rational self-interest.

      • ” You are correct to an extent that I am conflating the two, but this is actually because in my theory there is no difference.

        This is why I clarified in the blog that I do not believe in moral duty or obligation, as you put it.”

        Do you not see the contradiction between these two sentences?

        Clearly on your theory, there is a difference. One phenomenon refers to something real, whereas the other one refers to things which do not exist. Not existing is a pretty big difference!

        What you seem to be doing in your post is not offering a theory about morality, but rather proposing a replacement discourse as a substitute for actual moral talk. Which is fine, as long as you are clear and consistent in what you are doing. If you think we’d all be better off substituting soy-patties for beef in our burgers, that is one thing. But however desirable it may be to substitute soy for beef, do not go around saying that soy is beef.

        • I’m not sure that I see the contradiction, Andrew. It all just depends on how you define morality.

          But I like how you describe it as a substitution. Yes, this is what I am doing, in that I am substituting a goal theory discourse to address issues that we generally categorize under abstract moral obligation.

          Feel free to discard the term “moral” from my theory if you don’t like me using it in the new way that I have provided. But soy and beef are both food after all, and my new theory works to address the same category of issues, even if in a different way.

          Ugh, moral discourse leads to so many tautologies…

          • The contradiction comes when you examine moral obligation — unconditional statements of the second category of Richard’s post above — and come to the conclusion “there is no such thing as moral obligation.” That’s your theory: actual moral discourse is in some sense systematically mistaken because it keeps making these kind of claims (about things you should do regardless of whether you have the antecedent desires).

            So if this is your theory about what morality actually is, then however desirable your replacement discourse is (the one where there are only conditional imperatices), that’s not what your theory is about.

            Just as, there is no such thing as witchcraft. There are no real spellcasters or demon summoners or hexes. But there are Wiccans who call themselves witches and only believe in things acceptable to a naturalistic worldview, and say things like “oh, when I talk about witchcraft I just mean a metaphor for a bunch of non-supernatural psychological and social rituals and practices.” But this replacement discourse is not what our theory of witchcraft is about. It is about claims to be able to curse ex-lovers, and the theory says this doesn’t exist.

            If this is the same Richard Wein who I used to see while lurking around Luke Muehlhauser’s old blog, ask him to tell you some old war stories about Luke and his guru Alonzo Fyfe, who were absolutely legendary for their ability to continue not to grasp this point.

      • Matthew: However, if you conceive of morality as a strategic means to the end of achieving one’s ethical goals, then I am a complete moralist…

        And if you conceive of morality as a means of increasing Richard’s wealth, then I’m a moralist too, and sending me money is the morally right thing for you to do. And if you conceive of God as a ham sandwich, then I’m a theist.

        We can’t give words new meanings and still claim to be talking about the same thing as everyone else. If you’re using “moral” in a new sense (as you say), then you’ve switched to a new subject, and are misleadingly calling this new subject “morality” when it’s something else.

        The trouble is, it doesn’t feel like a new subject to you, because you aren’t using words in only the new sense. You are using words in both their normal sense and in your new sense, conflating the two. This enables you to believe in the truth of moral claims (in their normal sense) while arguing for their truth using your own sense. To do this, however, is to commit a fallacy of equivocation.

        At least you’re in good company. Lots of philosophers make the same sort of mistake.

  2. Good job laying out a developed and thought-out approach. Especially commendable is being forthright in explicitly labeling your position as subjectivist. I typically find that most internet atheists run a bait-and-switch operation with metaethical positions substantively similar to yours by calling them “objective” and then making some handwavy mumblings about game theory or fMRI scans, while not acknowledging their fundamental antirealism.

    On the downside though, when you hear someone begin to describe their morality as being grounded in rational self-interest you can almost always predict in advance where the theory is going to turn south. By making moral truths conditional on valuing the antecedent, you need to acknowledge that where the antecedent is false, the moral statement is false. I shouldn’t murder my wife’s lover if I value his life? But I don’t value his life. I hate him. Therefore, it is not immoral to kill him. I should support gay marriage if I value their sexual liberty? But I don’t value their sexual liberty. Therefore, it is not wrong for me to ban gay marriage.

    The issue is not just that this approach dramatically understates how often rational self-interest conflicts with what one would normally consider moral imperatives, although it clearly does. (In many contexts, such as the movie industry or hedge fund management or war-ravaged third-world jungles, success basically requires a large measure of sociopathy. qv Machiavelli.) However rare you think such instances are, you are still left with saying that Gyges-esque behavior is not morally wrong, by your own definitions. If you want to bite that bullet, then well and good, but in my experience defenders of morality-as-enlightened-self-interest theory invariably evade and twist around precisely this point.

    The irony here is that our theist opponents, who as a demographic tend not to be the brightest bulbs in the christmas tree, have no trouble instantly spotting this problem and hammering it home in debates. When I hear someone like Carrier claiming to “ground” morality like this, I cringe.

    • Thanks, Andrew, for the feedback. As I see it, finding a perfect ethical theory is like trying to find a perfect government. No matter how hard you try, every system is going to have shortcomings, loopholes, and problems. On the other hand, this is what we should expect in the case of ethical subjectivism or anti-realism, so I feel that it in no way threatens the Naturalist position. However, if one wishes to address certain political problems you have to develop a government, just like you have to develop an ethical theory to address moral concerns. I do not think that any government is perfect, but some can be better than others, just as I argue that my ethical theory is far better than anything that apologists have to offer.

      Objections can be raised to my moral motivation of rational self-interest. One can claim, as you pointed out, that if one does not accept the antecedent of valuing human life, then the imperative of not murdering holds no force under my theory. However, likewise, one can point out in Divine Command Theory that if god orders murder (or god’s nature is consistent with murder), then that makes murder moral as well. Some apologists like Craig have bitten the bullet and defended god’s commandments of genocide in the Old Testament. However, some apologists would respond that god would not command this, just as I will respond that any person fully informed of him or herself would realize that valuing human life is necessary to his or her self-actualization and happiness. Thus, since these ethics are normative, I would argue that no fully informed person would reject the antecedent.

      I admit, this requires a certain degree of ad hocness and you probably won’t accept it. But it requires far less ad hocness to claim that human psychological motives, which are biologically rooted, actually have a common and normative foundation than it is to claim that an invisible deity somehow makes morals with magic, in addition to explaining all the other problems of where god gets his morals. So I think that my theory has less ad hocness. You argue that sociopathy is required for success in certain venues. However, my experience is that such sociopaths are always miserable and worse off. Again, this is my personal impression, but avoiding such behavior has worked well for my happiness.

      I am more than understanding of our disagreements, but I do ask: do you likewise have a preference that humans not murder, steal, rape, etc.? If so, by what criteria do you base these preferences and how would you go about socially prohibiting such behavior? I would be more than happy to be presented with better answers on these questions if you have them, since I think all of us need to work to combat the apologetic moral argument.

      • Well, vitalism is less wildly wrong than creationism, but both appeal to non-natural explanations we secular liberals can and should do without. So while I agree that your theory is less problematic than DCT, having a smaller quantity of absurdity is still not as desirable a trait as having none at all, and there are metaethical views ready to hand which lack the problems of objectivity.

        To me, the atheist who responds to the moral argument with his own brand of realism is a lot like the guy who eats his peas with honey. “Yes, it tastes pretty bad, but it keeps them from rolling off my knife.” Trying to mimic the theist’s claim to objectivity is simply engineering a problem for yourself.

        As to whether a “fully informed” person would never — never — be rationally justified in choosing personal gain over the life of another, this strikes me as wishful thinking. There seem to be too many cases, both hypothetical and actual, in which alpha dogs like mafia dons or military dictators make this choice without them “lacking access to enough facts” or “making improper inferences about the consequences of their actions”. Sociopaths always miserable? You should see my boss’s 4-car garage and fashion model trophy wife.

        I have my own moral preferences, and they align in very statistically predictable and boring ways with the other white male center-left liberals in my age group. But I don’t “base” them on anything, or claim that I have access to a more accurate description of some non-moral facts that “makes” them true.

        If someone is mistaken about some empirical fact (whether homosexuality is a choice), or about the nonmoral, prudential consequences of their actions (whether torture produces reliable intelligence) then of course I will include this in my arguments with them, but this is neither sufficient nor necessary for moral persuasion, which is at heart simply a series of emotional and rhetorical appeals. I don’t give any more weight to moral arguments that begin “Reason demands…” than I do to arguments that begin “God demands…” or “Tradition demands…” or anything of the sort. I simply invite, cajole, exhort, declaim, and praise people into a state of mind where they find a world in which people share my moral values is the one they’d prefer to live in.

        • “I don’t give any more weight to moral arguments that begin “Reason demands…” than I do to arguments that begin “God demands…” or “Tradition demands…” or anything of the sort. I simply invite, cajole, exhort, declaim, and praise people into a state of mind where they find a world in which people share my moral values is the one they’d prefer to live in.”

          Well, sometimes that’s all we can do, but thanks for your input.

  3. Hey Andrew, in follow up to your last comment on Richard’s thread (I can’t post anymore on it because the column has gotten too small).

    I still don’t think that was what the theory was about. It was a discourse used to explain how the prohibitions and duties we usually attribute to moral obligation can be rationalized without the need for moral obligation. The unconditional statements you and Richard are describing I agree are non existent and pointless. However, I still think we can agree as a community that we have a rational for labeling things like murder, rape, and theft as undesirable without appealing to abstract moral absolutes. So I was never examining moral obligation in the first place, but was seeking a way to keep it’s supposed effects without it. To use your witchcraft metaphor, it would be like using chemistry to medicine to perform tasks that had previously been chalked up to witchcraft, but actually achieving them through natural means.

    Apparently you agree with me on these prohibitions, but don’t like my rational. The rational you provided was that you just don’t like them because of your race, age group, and political alignment.

    Heh, speaking of Luke Muehlhauser’s old blog, I didn’t care for it much. I’m thinking of starting a debate review section on this one to undo much of his unwarranted flattery of William Craig.

  4. Andrew: If this is the same Richard Wein who I used to see while lurking around Luke Muehlhauser’s old blog, ask him to tell you some old war stories about Luke and his guru Alonzo Fyfe, who were absolutely legendary for their ability to continue not to grasp this point.

    Ah, those were the days. ;)

    To be fair, when I started discussing the subject with Luke I was competely new to philosophy, so didn’t see the case so clearly. I’m sure I didn’t argue well at first. And by the time I was able to argue more clearly, Luke had stopped listening.

    Andrew: The irony here is that our theist opponents, who as a demographic tend not to be the brightest bulbs in the christmas tree, have no trouble instantly spotting this problem and hammering it home in debates. When I hear someone like Carrier claiming to “ground” morality like this, I cringe.

    I know the feeling. But I console myself with the thought that most philosophical thought is misguided, and we’re all much better at seeing the flaws in other people’s philosophical arguments than in our own. Atheists tend to be less wrong than theists on philosophical matters. But they’re still mostly wrong.

    • Maybe once every couple of months, I’ll dip into the LessWrong heavily fortified agrarian compound — er, I mean, “blog” to see how Luke is doing these days. The answer is, not good at all.

      If you found it frustrating trying to penetrate his cultist mindset when arguing against Fyfe’s silliness, consider the fact that his paycheck now literally depends on not realizing how incredibly creepy Yudkowskyism and its acolytes are.

      With hurricanes slamming into the US and earthquakes and wars and diseases, he recently argued that the best use of a $5000 charitable donation would still be to the Singularity Institute — so he could print hundreds of copies of Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter fanfiction and “mail them to our nation’s top math students to get them interested in FAI research”.

      Give me a divine command theorist any day instead of this.

  5. Matthew: I would be more than happy to be presented with better answers on these questions if you have them, since I think all of us need to work to combat the apologetic moral argument.

    The apologist claims that the existence of God is necessary for moral truth. You reply that it isn’t necessary because we can have moral truth without God. I reply that it isn’t necessary because we can’t have moral truth, even with God. God makes no difference.

    The trouble with my view is that it conflicts with our intuitions, and will be unacceptable to most people. The trouble with your view is that you are getting into a mud fight with the apologist, trading bad arguments for moral truth. You try to win by redefining the meaning of moral claims. He tries to win by making unsupported assertions, like “moral claims are made true by God’s commands”, or “moral claims are made true by God’s nature”. But he doesn’t explain how God’s command or God’s nature are supposed to make moral claims true.

    For what it’s worth, I would suggest that you drop the definitional argument. This sort of argument seems particularly weak. To most people it’s obvious that moral claims are not just claims about how to achieve one’s own goals. And since even atheist philosophers are so divided amongst themselves on this question, it seems overoptimistic to think that you are going to come up with a convincing argument for moral truth, let alone one particular account of moral truth.

    One option is just to attack the apologists’ claim that God can deliver moral truth. You don’t have to respond by claiming that something else can do that job. If you insist on doing that, you could just make the same kind of unsupported assertion as the apologist, e.g. “moral claims are made true by facts about the human mind”. If pressed you could say, “No, I can’t explain how that works. But the apologist is in just the same boat as far as that’s concerned. And at least I don’t appeal to a mythical being.” Remember, you’re only trying to refute the apologist’s argument. You don’t need to come up with a meta-ethical theory of your own, and I think that committing yourself to one is unnecessarily giving your opponent an extra target, and distracting attention from the weakness of his argument.

    • Thanks for the thorough response, Richard. I will only contend that I was not arguing for moral truth but was offering a replacement discourse for explaining the prohibitions and duties that normally fall under “moral imperatives.” However, I am getting tired of arguing this issue ad nauseam, so we are just going to have to agree to disagree on that point.

      It doesn’t matter, since I strongly agree with your next point on the matter:

      “One option is just to attack the apologists’ claim that God can deliver moral truth. You don’t have to respond by claiming that something else can do that job… Remember, you’re only trying to refute the apologist’s argument. You don’t need to come up with a meta-ethical theory of your own, and I think that committing yourself to one is unnecessarily giving your opponent an extra target, and distracting attention from the weakness of his argument.”

      Having bitterly argued with apologists on this issue, I’m starting to agree that this is the best approach. As much as I want to give an alternative means of explaining why we label things “moral,” I agree that it just gives the apologists a target and an opportunity to hide the weakness of their own argument. It also, as we have seen, can be an issue that divides atheists as well. Apologists go on the offense non-stop in the morality debate, attacking atheists, and assume that having a deity just magically makes moral truth. So putting them on the defensive is a good approach.

      I’m sick of discussing the moral issue for now, but in the future I will come up with another blog exposing the flaws in most apologetic moral arguments.

  6. P.S. On re-reading my last comment, I feel it came on rather strong. Sorry, Matthew, I didn’t mean to be that harsh.

    Also, I’ve put the term “moral truth” in your mouth though you haven’t used that term. But our previous discussion did seem to establish that you believe that actions can be morally right or wrong, and therefore that claims like “action X was morally wrong” can be true. Or have I misunderstood you?

    • Haha, I just posted a few seconds before you on this. Yes, I do think you have put the word “moral truth” in my mouth, since I was not arguing for moral truth but a sort of strategic truth in that certain actions can be factually said to satisfy certain desirable ends. I agree though that using this new definition creates confusion and can be used as a target by the apologists. Forgive me, but I am worn out discussing this issue for the moment and actually recovering from a horrible case of the flu right now. But once I get the stamina to write on the issue again, I will be going on the offensive against the apologetic moral argument, as you recommend, and hopefully we can reach more agreement there.

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