Ethical Realism

July 19, 2011

The Is/Ought Gap: How Do We Get “Ought” from “Is?”

The is/ought gap illustrates the difficulty in understanding what it means to say that we ought to do something, and how we can know what we ought to do. What is the is/ought gap and what’s it all about? I will describe the is/ought gap, discuss its implications in meta-ethics, and discuss various solutions to the is/ought gap.

What is the is/ought gap?

The is/ought gap is a problem in moral philosophy where what is the case and what ought to be the case seem quite different, and it presents itself as the following question to David Hume: How do we know what morally ought to be the case from what is the case?

Hume posed the question in A Treatise of Human Nature Book III Part I Section I:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs, when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ‘tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason shou’d be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

It is here that Hume points out that philosophers argue about various nonmoral facts, then somehow conclude what ought to be the case (or what people ought to do) based on those facts (about what is the case). For example, we might find out that arsenic is poisonous and conclude that we ought not consume it. But we need to know how nonmoral facts can lead to moral conclusions. These two things seem unrelated.

The is/ought gap doesn’t seem like a problem for nonmoral oughts—what we ought to do to accomplish our goals, fulfill our desires, or maintain our commitments. For example, we could say, “If you want to be healthy, you ought not consume arsenic.” However, it might be morally wrong to consume arsenic. If it is, we have some more explaining to do.

Some of the things we ought to do are obligations, but not everything we ought to do is an obligation. For example, we can be obligated to meet a friend for lunch after making a promise to. The difference between what we are obligated to do and other things we ought to do isn’t entirely clear, but it’s generally considered to be morally wrong when we fail to fulfill a moral obligation. When dealing with morality, our moral obligations tend to be what we consider to be of greater importance than other things we ought to do. For example, it might be that I morally ought to give half my money to charity, but it wouldn’t be wrong if I don’t. On the other hand it’s morally wrong to steal from a charity and I’m obligated not to do that.

The is/ought gap is similar to the fact/value gap. Some people think that nonevaluative facts and values are totally different things. They think we know nonevaluative facts, but it’s not clear how we know what’s valuable—what moral values we ought to promote. For example, some people think pleasure is good and pain is bad. We ought to give ourselves and others pleasure, but we ought not to give ourselves or others pain. It’s not obvious how we know what has moral value, but values will be discussed in greater detail below.

The meta-ethical implications

First, the is/ought gap requires us to better understand the concept of a “moral ought.” Second, it might be evidence for moral anti-realism.

What is a “moral ought?”

The is/ought gap doesn’t seem like a problem unless we are dealing with what “morally ought” to be the case. For example, if you tell a person that it’s morally wrong to put arsenic in someone else’s food. There’s no consensus about what distinguishes a moral ought from a nonmoral ought, but there are many common assumptions that we seem to have about them. For example:

  1. We ought not do something if it’s morally wrong.
  2. It’s morally wrong to kill people indiscriminately.
  3. All things equal, it’s morally right to save people’s lives.
  4. If someone does something very morally wrong, like killing people indiscriminately, then that person should be blamed for the action and should be punished for it.
  5. What we morally ought to do overrides our nonmoral obligations.
  6. I morally ought to save the life of a small child when doing so is at little cost to myself, even if I will then fail to meet my friend for lunch on time after promising to do so.
  7. What I morally ought not do isn’t changed by wanting to do it. For example, I morally ought not to kill people indiscriminately, even if I want to do it.
  8. We can be wrong about what we ought to do (or ought not do). A person can think that killing people indiscriminately isn’t wrong, but that belief would be false.
  9. People often argue about what we morally ought to do, and we can disagree about what we should belief regarding morality.
  10. Some moral beliefs are more justified than others. It seems irrational to believe that it’s never wrong to indiscriminately kill people, and such a belief seems unjustified. In contrast, the belief that it is wrong to kill people indiscriminately seems justified.
  11. Some actions are good, but they aren’t obligations. For example, it’s good to save a child from a burning building, but it’s often too dangerous to be morally required of us.
  12. We should be moral, even if we aren’t motivated by external rewards or punishments. For example, dying to protect one’s friends from a grizzly bear is sometimes morally right, even though it leads to the ultimate personal sacrifice.

How is the is/ought gap evidence of moral anti-realism?

Moral anti-realists think that there are no irreducible moral facts—all moral truths can be reduced to our beliefs, desires, commitments, and so on. Anti-realists don’t think that anything is right or wrong apart from something like a social contract—it’s practical to commit ourselves to behaving ethically insofar as we will benefit when everyone else makes the same commitment as well. Three reasons that the is/ought gap is often taken to be evidence for anti-realism is because (a) the anti-realist sees no reason to think that what morally ought to be the case is a “moral fact” beyond our beliefs, desires, and commitments; (b) the anti-realist sees no reason to think that we could ever know such moral facts exist; and (c) the anti-realist solutions to the is/ought gap could be superior to the realist solutions.

Is what morally ought to be the case a moral fact? Facts are states of affairs—actual things that exist and relations between things that exist. That a cat is on the mat is a fact. It’s unclear how what morally ought to be the case can be a fact. What morally ought to be is often quite different from the actual state of affairs in the world. A thief steals, a murderer kills, and so on. People aren’t actually doing what they ought to do. How can a state of affairs that ought to exist be said to be a fact when what ought to be the case is often quite different from what actually exists or happens in the world? Anti-realists see no good answers for these questions, but they think anti-realism can solve the problem by avoiding it. If there are no moral facts, then we no longer need to answer these questions.

How can we know what morally ought to be the case? Hume was an empiricist, so he thought we could only know about reality through observation. What we observe isn’t necessarily what ought to be. The actual state of affairs in the world can be quite different that what people morally ought to do. We do know what is the case because we can observe it. Looking at what is the case—the actually obtaining nonmoral facts—doesn’t seem to tell us what ought to be the case. So, it’s not obvious how we can know what morally ought to be the case assuming that it’s a moral fact. Anti-realists think that we can avoid this problem entirely by becoming anti-realists and admitting there are no moral facts.

Solutions to the is/ought gap

There are many potential solutions to the is/ought gap, and they aren’t always mutually exclusive. Additionally, there are two main approaches to the problem: (1) Understanding the concept of what morally ought to be the case can help us know how to get what ought to be the case from what is the case, and (2) we can provide intuitive answers and compare/contrast each solution to see which is best. Most philosophers try to use a combination of these two approaches.

A Platonic Solution

Plato was a moral realist who thought that there are ideal forms (abstract objects) that exist in the world as ideal “perfect” things. There’s perfect goodness, perfect virtue, perfect courage, and so on. In some sense what ought to be the case really does exist—as the forms. We can somehow know these forms through contemplation or intuition. Perhaps we experienced the forms before we were born and can remember them throughout our lives. For Plato certain forms are “moral facts” that exist in a way similar to any other state of affairs. We ought to acquire characteristics of the forms, such as goodness, virtue, justice, wisdom, and moderation. Once we have those characteristics (perfections or virtues), we will do what we morally ought to. No one acquires virtues completely, and people who do so well are better people who don’t.

Simply put, the Platonic solution is that what ought to be the case is based primarily on actually existing abstract objects, and we are “what ought to be” insofar as we approximate these objects. What we ought to do is based on what we will do naturally once we are perfect.

There are at least two strong objections to this Platonic view. First, it seems overly-ambitious and far-fetched. We shouldn’t accept new forms of reality to exist when no such assumptions are required. Second, it’s unclear how contemplation or intuition can give us knowledge of the forms.

A Theistic Solution

Theists can have a solution similar to the Platonic solution, but they can replace the forms with God. God is perfect goodness, and we ought to be as much like God as possible. Insofar as we approximate God, we will do what we ought to naturally, and insofar as we fail to approximate God, we won’t.

Aristotle’s Solution

Aristotle developed teleology—the idea that there are goals infused in nature. He thought that each being has a natural telos (goal), which is its perfection (flourishing). A seed’s telos can be a fully developed tree, and the telos of a small child is to develop into a virtuous and political adult with a developed rational capacity. For Aristotle what ought to be the case is based on the natural tendency and potentiality to flourish. As human beings we naturally desire our telos and fulfillment of our telos rewards us with happiness.

For Aristotle what “ought to be the case” is based on a potentiality rather than what actually exists, but he thinks this potentiality is part of actually existing things. We can figure out our potentiality through our rational desires and through observation.

There are at least two important objections to Aristotle’s solution. First, it’s unclear that natural objects really do have a natural telos. Second, it’s unclear that rational desires and observation can help us discover the telos of beings, even if they do have a telos.

Torbjörn Tännsjö’s Solution

Tännsjö is a moral realist who argues that there are intrinsic values—some things are good or bad just for existing. In particular, he believes that pleasure is intrinsically good and pain is intrinsically bad. He thinks we ought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and everyone counts. He basically embraces utilitarianism in this regard. He thinks it’s morally right to maximize goodness, and it’s morally wrong not to. (My understanding is that Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape endorses a view much like Tännsjö’s.)

How do we know about intrinsic values? Tännsjö thinks we can observe that they exist. Pain seems to be intrinsically good when we experience it, and pain seems to be intrinsically bad when we experience it.

Why exactly is what morally ought to be the case based on intrinsic value? Tännsjö argues that this is simply what he thinks we should mean by what we morally ought to do based on something like a social contract, and this view is quite intuitive. It certainly seems like we ought not to cause ourselves excessive pain based on how it feels to us, and it also seems intuitive to think it’s wrong to cause other people excessive pain as well.

He is a moral realist because he believes in irreducible moral facts (i.e. intrinsic values), but what “morally ought to be the case” is not itself an irreducible moral fact. His view is a minimalistic moral realist view that admits that moral anti-realists can be right about many things, but he thinks the anti-realist wrongly denies that intrinsic values exist.

There are at least five objections to Tännsjö’s solution. First, many people are unconvinced that intrinsic values exist. Second, many people deny that we can experience that pleasure is intrinsically good or pain is intrinsically bad. Third, many people think there’s more intrinsic values than merely pleasure and pain. Fourth, many people think that we need more than a social contract and intrinsic values to know what “morally ought to be the case.” Perhaps murder is wrong, even if there is no social contract, and when we disagree about morality, we aren’t just disagreeing about the actual social contract that exists. Fifth, many people are unconvinced that right and wrong are determined by utilitarianism, and many counterexamples have been given against it.

David Hume’s Solution

Hume rejects that there are irreducible moral facts. Instead, what we morally ought to do is based on our sentiments. In particular, our sympathy for others. When we say that murder is wrong, we are stating our repulsion towards murder based on our sympathy for the victim.

For Hume, there’s no major difference between what morally ought to be the case or what nonmorally ought to be the case based on our goals. Both sorts of “ought” are based on our sentiments. The difference is mainly just that what morally ought to be is based on sympathy in particular. Many philosophers agree with Hume, and similar views about morality has continued though the “moral sentimentalist” and “care ethics” traditions.

The main problem with Hume’s solution is that it seems incompatible with many common assumptions regarding morality. First, it seems to contradict the assumption that desires can’t override what we morally ought to do. Second, it seems to contradict the assumption that our personal goals can’t override what we morally ought to do. Third, it seems to contradict the assumption that we can be wrong about what morally ought to be the case. Fourth, it seems to contradict our assumption that some moral goals are more reasonable than others.

A Hobbsian Solution

Thomas Hobbes also denies that there are moral facts, and he thinks we can know what morally ought to be the case based purely on practical reason through a social contract. We all have shared interests and we can agree to behave a certain way for our mutual benefit. For example, we can all agree not to kill each other indiscriminately because we all have an interest in staying alive. We can then also pass laws and agree that people who break the social contract will be punished to help “keep people in line” and be assured that people will stay faithful to the contract.

Again, Hobbes’s solution seems incompatible with many common assumptions. First, it’s unclear how Hobbes can accept that what we morally ought to do can override what we nonmorally ought to do. Second, it’s unclear how Hobbes can accept that people who do good that’s not required of them by the social contract are still doing what’s morally praiseworthy.

Lawrence Becker’s Solution

Becker argues that we can get a nonmoral ought by finding out what we ought to do based on our goals nothing-else-considered, but we ought to do what we morally ought to do based on our goals (and whatever else) all-things-considered. In other words, you ought to fulfill your desires (nonmorally), but you morally ought to fulfill your desires as long as there’s no overriding reason against it. If you want to eat chocolate and there’s no conflicting reason not to, then you should do it. He expects that people will have an overriding reason not to commit murder or become thieves.

There are at least three objections to Becker’s solution. First, it’s very abstract. It’s not yet clear what reasons we can have against behaving in certain ways. For example, what exactly is the reason against murdering people when we want to murder people? Second, it seems to lack importance. Why say you morally ought to eat chocolate? That seems too petty to be ranked as what we morally ought to do. Third, if it’s true, then it’s unclear why it’s true. Why is it that we morally ought to do whatever is necessary to achieve our goals as long as we don’t have overriding reasons not to? And what makes any reason overriding?


The is/ought gap doesn’t seem like a serious problem for moral realism because almost no moral realist philosopher has ever thought that “what you morally ought to do” actually exists as an irreducible moral fact. However, what you morally ought to be could be part of our nature or it could exist in the forms. Additionally, moral realists like Tännsjö don’t think that what “morally ought to be the case” needs to be irreducible moral facts at all. Instead, we can rely on intrinsic values as a basis for morality and accept anti-realist beliefs whenever they are sufficiently plausible. The problem with anti-realism (if anything) is that it’s incomplete rather than that it’s entirely false—and we are likely to have assumptions that seem incompatible with anti-realism.

Nonetheless, the anti-realist solutions (of Hume and Hobbes) could be more plausible than the realist ones, and that in itself could be a challenge to moral realism.


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  1. The Christian view seems to be the simplest realist solution (you are only assuming the existence of one additional entity, i.e. God, as opposed to an infinite number of ideal forms – Platonic solution – or an infinite number of teleos – Aristotle’s solution) and the one that is best able to explain moral values and duties (God’s nature constitutes what is good and God’s will or commandments determine what is right and wrong; how do the Platonic and Aristotilian solutions distinguish between what is good – becoming a firefighter, a doctor, a farmer, etc. – and what is morally obligatory?). The other realist solutions also seem complex. The Christian solution provides a basis for moral values and duties, while the other realist solutions merely posit the existence of moral facts without any explanation as to their origin.

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 23, 2011 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

    • Tännsjö’s solution is pretty simple. Almost all moral realists agree that pain is intrinsically bad and so on. It’s also not obvious how simple it is to assume the existence of God because we have many assumptions about such an entity. Just about everything the forms do can be assumed about God, for example. Merely assuming that a fill-in-the-blank god exists doesn’t solve the problem.

      Edit: Also keep in mind that Plato thought that all the forms were part of a single thing — the Good. The difference in complexity between the Good and God isn’t entirely clear. If God has thoughts, loves people, and created the universe, then God might be more complicated than “the Good” based on the additional assertions being made.

      The Christian solution provides a basis for moral values and duties, while the other realist solutions merely posit the existence of moral facts without any explanation as to their origin.

      The origin of moral facts is an important question, and Tännsjö doesn’t give an answer to it (as far as I know). However, I don’t know that the origin of moral facts is a bigger problem than the origin of psychological facts. If the brain gives us a mind, then it also gives us pain, and we experience that pain is intrinsically bad (assuming Tännsjö is right). It doesn’t seem necessary for God to exist for severe pain to be bad. I can assume God doesn’t exist, and severe pain would still seem intrinsically bad to me.

      Comment by James Gray — July 24, 2011 @ 5:15 am | Reply

  2. If Plato’s metaphysics is incompatible with traditional theism, as some have argued, then the analogy between “the Good” and “God” breaks down when you consider that, if God exists, abstract objects cannot exist except as ideas in the mind of God (and an unembodied mind is, arguably, quite simple) or as useful fictions in our own mind, not as the sort of independently existing nonphysical entities that Plato envisioned (being part of “the Good”). Also, without God, it seems difficult to imagine how we might explain where moral oughts come from, from the realist perspective.

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 26, 2011 @ 1:14 am | Reply

    • I’m not saying the good is analogous to God except that it’s not obvious that God is more simple than “the good.” They are both one thing, but they are complected things. They might both violate Occam’s razor. I already discussed where oughts can come from without God. Tännsjö doesn’t think oughts exist except through something like a social contract/commitment to promote intrinsic value. There are serious issues with any account about where oughts come from, even if God exists.

      Comment by James Gray — July 26, 2011 @ 1:34 am | Reply

  3. “I already discussed where oughts can come from without God.”


    “Tännsjö doesn’t think oughts exist except through something like a social contract/commitment to promote intrinsic value.”

    How does his moral theory account for the difference between what is morally good and what is morally obligatory?

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 26, 2011 @ 2:52 am | Reply

    • Again, Tännsjö will think it will be related to a social contract that takes intrinsic value into consideration. He doesn’t actually spell it out for us in detail. Many utilitarian conceptions of moral obligation are counterintuitive, but some other consequentialist account could be better. What is morally obligated of us should be of very high importance and not too hard to accomplish. “High importance” can be related to intrinsic value. For example, it’s easy to decide not to torture children, and it’s very important that we don’t torture children because it would cause them pain. It’s generally easier for us to refrain from hurting people than to provide help for people, which could help explain why we strongly accept that we are morally obligated not to hurt people, but we think helping people is often “above the call of duty.”

      This account of obligation is similar to Peter Singer’s, as he described in Rich and Poor:

      Consider that God is perfect and has the virtues we should all aspire to attain. Even then it’s not obvious at what point we are obligated to have a virtuous character or to behave a certain way and at what point we are behaving “beyond the call of duty.”

      I don’t want to claim that any of these answers are entirely satisfying, which is why I said that “there are serious issues with any account about where oughts come from, even if God exists.”

      Comment by James Gray — July 26, 2011 @ 4:29 am | Reply

  4. “Consider that God is perfect and has the virtues we should all aspire to attain. Even then it’s not obvious at what point we are obligated to have a virtuous character or to behave a certain way and at what point we are behaving “beyond the call of duty.” ”

    As I noted, there’s the view that God’s nature constitutes what is good and God’s will or commandments determine what is right and wrong (i.e. our moral duty).

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 26, 2011 @ 5:03 pm | Reply

  5. As I noted, there’s the view that God’s nature constitutes what is good and God’s will or commandments determine what is right and wrong (i.e. our moral duty).

    God’s nature is perfection, but it’s not our duty to be perfect. How do we know the difference between what’s obligated and what is above the call of duty?

    Edit: I also think that God and intrinsic values play a similar role in the two different answers given here. God is perfection, and the assumption is that we ought to emulate God. Inrinsic value is goodness, and the assumption is that we ought to try to promote goodness. Both assumptions are difficult to justify. That’s why there might be a social contract involved.

    Comment by James Gray — July 26, 2011 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

  6. You haven’t addressed the view that I described, which you quoted.

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 28, 2011 @ 12:28 am | Reply

    • I didn’t say it’s true or false. I think it has certain problems like any other view. If God commands something, then we assume it is “right” and not doing it is “wrong,” but most theist philosophers think there’s more to right and wrong than that. In fact the belief “If God commands it, then it’s right for that reason” needs some sort of justification because it’s so controversial.

      Comment by James Gray — July 28, 2011 @ 12:43 am | Reply

  7. Some philosophers have offered justifications for divine command morality, such as Robert Adams.

    Another point in favor of the Christian solution is the evidence (both historical and philosophical) for Christian theism. None of the other realist solutions that you mentioned posses this added support (even though this evidence is hotly debated).

    Comment by philosopher145 — July 28, 2011 @ 2:38 am | Reply

  8. Sam Harris and Richard Carrier agree that science can answer moral questions and moral “facts” exist.

    But some of their nontheistic brethren disagree that science can answer moral questions:

    1) Google: “Massimo Pigliucci” AND “Sam Harris” to read about their debate as to whether or not science can answer moral questions.

    Massimo is currently producing a multi-part series on ethics with the following objectives:
    a) make as clear as possible my “third way” between moral relativism and objective moral truths
    b) systematically explore the differences among the major ethical systems proposed by philosophers: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics and egalitarianism
    c) apply the method of reflective equilibrium to my own thinking about ethics to see whether I need to revise my positions about moral philosophy (Massimo says he is “starting this quest with a marked preference for virtue ethics, but mixed with the apparently not so easy to reconcile with egalitarianism of John Rawls),” and adds, “We’ll see how far we get.”

    On ethics, part I: Moral philosophy’s third way Jul 28, 2011
    Ethics, its implications and its justifications keep appearing at Rationally Speaking in a variety of forms, from my critique of Sam Harris’ scientism to my rejection of Objectivism, from Julia’s skepticism about meta-ethics to …

    On ethics, part II: Consequentialism Aug 09, 2011
    Following up on my general discussion about what ethics is, I am now going to proceed with a series of brief commentaries on specific approaches to ethics, attempting to cover the major ways of philosophizing about morality …

    On ethics, part III: Deontology Aug 16, 2011
    For the purposes of this discussion I will set aside any theologically based system of ethics, for two reasons: a) I think the idea of deities is incoherent or at least irrational; b) Plato showed convincingly in his Euthyphro dialogue that even if gods …

    ON THE SUBJECT OF DEONTOLOGY see also these fascinating observations from another blog:
    “…it is unlikely that inclinations that evolved as evolutionary byproducts correspond to some independent, rationally discoverable moral truth. Instead, it is more parsimonious to suppose that when we feel the pull of [deontological judgments], we are merely gravitating toward our evolved emotional inclinations and not toward some independent moral truth. . . Still, humans may need to use deontological rules because we run on corrupted hardware.”

    On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics Aug 21, 2011
    [This post is part of an ongoing series on ethics in which Massimo is exploring and trying to clarify his own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why he thinks so. Part I was on meta-ethics; part II on consequentialism; part ...

    2) S. T. Joshi in his new book, The Unbelievers (Prometheus Books 2011), spends a fair percentage of pages not just describing Harris' impact as an unbeliever but also ripping into some of Harris' arguments, including Harris' view that science can answer moral questions.


    Statistical Numbing. Why Millions Can Die, and We Don’t Care -- "This has all sorts of profound implications. Statistical numbing plays a huge role in what the news media covers, and what it doesn’t" Also, "The profound and sobering truth is that our perceptions are an inextricable blend of reason and subjective emotion. Between the one real human and huge but abstract numbers, the numbers simply don’t carry the same emotional power, and they never will. One death will always move us more than one million. This 'fundamental deficiency in our humanity' is an inescapable part of the human animal. Perhaps by recognizing this about ourselves, and its tragic implicat...ions, we can do something about it. But that is hoping that reason can overcome emotion in the way we perceive things. Sadly, the evidence suggests that there will be a lot more suffering before that happens."

    The Myth of Universal Human Rights by David N. Stamos [A book on the same topic is forthcoming]
    Feb 2, 2010 — The modern belief in universal human rights began in the 1640s with the Levellers during the English Civil Wars. Claims for earlier sources are guilty of presentism, gerrymandering and often ethno-centrism. The English Levellers were also the first to express genuinely democratic beliefs and values. Memetic analysis is used as the best explanation of this correlation. Evolutionary history is used to show that the Emperor has no clothes, that the widespread belief in universal human rights is a modern myth. Evolutionary psychology is used to explain the force and vivacity of the modern belief in universal human rights, since memetic analysis alone is not up to the task – specifically, Trivers’ theory of reciprocal altruism and de Waal’s work on egocentric fairness in primates. Finally, a brief appeal is made for a naturalized approach to dealing with matters of ethics and justice, one that focuses on empathy and other moral instincts. [Professor Stamos teaches philosophy at York and is the author of Evolution and the Big Questions (2008), Darwin and the Nature of Species (2007) and The Species Problem (2003)]

    The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos by Sam Harris

    Two Competing Moralities: The Principles of Fairness contra ‘Gott Mit Uns!’
    Editorial by Paul Kurtz (founder of Free Inquiry magazine and Prometheus Books)

    Personal Morality by Paul Kurtz

    Kurtz says, “Permit me to make some rather blunt assertions: First, to be a secularist or atheist is no guarantee of ethical high-mindedness or moral integrity. Evidence for this statement is abundant. The twentieth century is littered with the corpses of millions of innocent human beings who suffered at the hands of secular despots, such as Stalin and Mao, who were willing to sacrifice their victims at the altar of ideological absolutism. The dehumanization of human dignity was the cause of infamous crimes against humanity. The most graphic illustration of this was the murder of millions of Cambodians by Pol Pot and his henchmen from 1975 to 1979. In a fanatical effort to turn Cambodia into a utopian peasant society, approximately 1.7 million were killed, religion and commerce were banned, and the educated classes were exterminated. The first international trial of senior cadres of the Khmer Rouge is at long last being convened this year.Of course, one may retort that evil deeds committed by religious believers likewise unleashed moral horrors—the carnage wreaked across in Europe by fascists before and during World War II, genocides committed in Armenia and Rwanda by religious forces, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a Judaic-Christian nation, suicide and terrorism by the disciples of the Qur’an, and countless wars waged historically in the name of God. So it cuts both ways. Personal morality is perhaps independent of religious piety or atheistic conviction. Second, alas, I have found that nonbelievers can be as nasty, uncaring, and insensitive as believers. I have known many atheists who have been so embittered by what they loathe that they are all too willing to debase humanist ethical principles. Some have been so overwhelmed by hatred that they allow resentment, jealousy, and the quest for power and status to corrupt their moral commitments. They have betrayed colleagues and friends for their own self-interest. Perhaps they have succumbed to the same temptations of the surrounding culture that prizes self-aggrandizement and success in a competitive struggle to achieve, no matter what. So, the question for the Center for Inquiry movement is: How shall we develop within the movement a respect for and appreciation of the principles of ethical humanism? Here I submit that it is essential that we cultivate and develop personal moral growth. How to do that is the question. Indeed, in my view this is the major challenge we face. We can hardly build viable secular communities as alternatives to theistic religions without developing the bonds of trust and collegiality among those who share its ideals.”

    The Philosophical Significance of Psychopaths: Postmodernism, Morality, and God by David N. Stamos

    Atheists Are Generous-They Just Don’t Give to Charity by Tom Rees

    MY OPINION: The only obvious thing about the question of “ethics” is that 99.9% of people have no desire to have their lives or things taken from them at some other person’s whim. In comparison to that observation all other forms of negative human interaction are less intense, from adultery to open marriages and free love, from lying and slandering to telling white lies, all the way down to manners and etiquette (how best to react to others).. So aside from the twin peaks of murder and theft that I mentioned things start to grow fuzzier and fuzzier.

    What also grows fuzzy is how different spheres of decision-making interact. There is the
    person-sized sphere
    family and friend-sized sphere
    city-sized sphere
    state-sized sphere
    nation-sized sphere
    global-sized sphere.

    Decision made by the individual and for that individual might be hard to sell to family, friends, city, state, nation or planet. That goes for all sorts of decisions, from how to spend a dollar to how to spend one’s time. As persons we each pursue personal goals. Attempting to get people to recognize goals larger than themselves that lie in ever larger spheres of a more abstract nature is a daunting task. What kind of ethics can produce harmony among all the spheres and their goals? A family for instance might want to send their child to an expensive college, but the parents know such money could prevent the suffering of countless children elsewhere on earth who need everything from a packet of salt to prevent death from loose bowels, or an inexpensive vaccine, or mosquito netting, or an essential mineral or vitamin to prevent birth defects. Of course the parents could compromise and send their child to a less expensive college and send some money toward those other ventures. But what about parents who don’t wish to compromise? There are also spheres of decision making that contain disharmony on their own level, for instance on the level of a nation’s decision-making (i.e., government spending). And the decision of each nation can be in conflict with decisions of neighboring or competing nations.

    Lastly, there is what I’d call the phenomenon of “arms races,” that may begin with simple miscommunications and/or small disagreements that grow and fuel increasingly more heated reactions and discomfort in each sphere and between spheres, until the matter grows out of control. It happens between family members as well as between nations. When things get that out of control we have personal and even nationwide warefare.

    If we could educate people to cooperate in all such spheres, what kinds of education would one suggest? Is education alone the answer? There’s economic inequalities between individuals as well as between cities and neighborhoods and entire nations. Even the ruling of a “world court” does not end disagreements between different members and how each nations votes against one another in such a court.

    So, does “morality” exist? Or is each individual, each family member, each city, state, nation, INCESSANTLY and INNATELY sizing each other up, generalizing, and arriving at decisions as to where to “draw the line” based on a HOST OF FACTORS, from primate sympathy to primate greed and primate power-politics (alpha male leadership), not to mention applications of foresight, and self-interest in each sphere from individual to national? “Morality” is thus part of each large-brained primate’s overall decison-making process. It’s not written in stone either. For instance, it appears to me that religious tolerance resulted when each denomination realized they couldn’t compel the others to convert by either persuasion or brute force. Same with political tolerance. Today we trade with communist China, we don’t waste half as much time as we once did trying to build ever bigger atomic bombs or plan invasions. Both sides realized that the new ground of competition where they could meet without simply seeking to mutually annihilate each other was on the ground of economic trade. But even that ground is filled with holes into which both sides could conceivably fall. So the competition between spheres continues.

    Perhaps if humans could have their genes altered we could avoid conflicts and think more as a global entity–imagine a world full of waiters who want to serve other humans a bit more than be served. That would probably result in the imprisonment of people rejecting such a transformation of their genes, i.e., people who retained a greater capacity for selfishness. But what if such a genetic makeover was the only way to get us all working and thinking globally and sharing resources more fully? Would it be better for humanity to perish than be genetically altered into six billion “waiters?” “May I help you?” How creative would such a race of “waiters” be, in songs, in art, in comedy, in drama? Humans seem to be super-chimps that get excited by a lot of stupid stuff.


    Not a superman who stumbles,
    but an ape with makeshift manners
    in whose nickel-plated jungles
    roam mechanical bananas.

    ["What is Man?" a poem by William Tenn]

    “Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or a religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates…Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order… When social animals are involved…antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human. ”

    [Frans De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates]

    “Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

    “Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection… Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

    “That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

    “These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt–though of course usually an unsuccessful one–to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

    “If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we–being creatures subject to gravitation–could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention.”

    [Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

    Comment by Edward T. Babinski — August 23, 2011 @ 3:03 am | Reply

    • Edward T. Babinski,

      Your post here is a bit overwhelming, but I will respond to one of your points.

      So, does “morality” exist? Or is each individual, each family member, each city, state, nation, INCESSANTLY and INNATELY sizing each other up, generalizing, and arriving at decisions as to where to “draw the line” based on a HOST OF FACTORS, from primate sympathy to primate greed and primate power-politics (alpha male leadership), not to mention applications of foresight, and self-interest in each sphere from individual to national?

      These aren’t mutually exclusive. First, morality could very well be a host of factors. Second, morality could exist, but our beliefs and behavior could be based on a faulty understanding of morality.

      I agree that the existence of morality should be questioned if we know absolutely nothing about it at all. Moral facts have to make a difference to us one way or another or we have no reason to think they exist.

      Comment by James Gray — August 23, 2011 @ 5:23 am | Reply

  9. Reblogged this on pedrocooper.

    Comment by pedrocooper — July 4, 2012 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  10. Reblogged this on Shh….

    Comment by doedsengel — February 17, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  11. Hume’s “law” is easily overcome by the fact that we can get “ought’s” from “is’s” once there is a goal in place. Science can help us determine these goals. Furthermore, we overcome Hume’s law every single day through science to the benefit of millions. For instance, health practitioners make “ought’s” from “is’s” every moment of the day. Cancer is an “is” it is only when one has the goal of being cancer free and living a healthy flourishing life that one can state that we “ought” to remove cancer from the body or that cancer is bad for health. I do not understand why Hume’s law is even still considered important in modern scientific reasoned discourse, it is a silly little mind game played by skeptics and antagonists of objective secular ethics who want to drag their heels sticking out their tongues shouting “You can’t get an ought from an is! I know you are but what am I? Nanananana.”

    Comment by Arrin Stoner — February 24, 2014 @ 10:27 pm | Reply

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