Ethical Realism

March 10, 2011

Six Uncontroversial Moral Beliefs

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 6:50 am
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There are highly plausible uncontroversial moral beliefs, such as the belief that slavery and racism are wrong. These beliefs are important to philosophy because they help justify our theories and arguments. Arguments that are compatible with such beliefs are more plausible than those that conflict with them. I will define “highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs,” briefly discuss why such beliefs are important in philosophy, and explain why I think the following six beliefs fit this description:

  1. It can be appropriate to love someone to the point of self-sacrifice.
  2. It’s appropriate to have empathy for all people.
  3. Morality is overriding.
  4. It’s rational to be moral.
  5. Morality isn’t up to us.
  6. Some actions are right and some are wrong.

What are “highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs?”

Highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs are beliefs most moral philosophers agree upon after deliberating about moral philosophy, and many non-philosophers seem to agree that they are probably true. Even though many of us think we can know these beliefs are true, it can be very difficult to explain how we can know they are true.

There are varying degrees that beliefs can be “plausible” and “uncontroversial.” “1+1=2” is maximally plausible and uncontroversial, and “it’s wrong to kill people in at least some situations” is also extremely plausible but it’s at least somewhat less plausible.

Highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs are not always irrefutable or known for certain, but many people think they know they’re true. It’s normal to say, “I know I have a hand” or “I know killing people just because they have a certain hair color is wrong” because these beliefs are so plausible and uncontroversial.

“Uncontroversial beliefs” as I use the term are not necessarily agreed upon by everyone, but such beliefs are not irrational and I find the denial of these beliefs to be “counterintuitive” or “absurd.” They can be justified through argumentation or they can be justified intuitively.1

Highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs are not merely common beliefs. The belief that the Earth is flat was a common belief for thousands of years, but the realization that the world is actually round does not seem absurd or counterintuitive once we realize that the Earth is so large that it only looks flat from close up.

I will henceforth call highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs “uncontroversial beliefs” for short.

Why are uncontroversial beliefs important?

Uncontroversial beliefs are important in philosophy. All things equal, theories and arguments that require us to reject uncontroversial beliefs are “revisionary” and are less plausible than theories and arguments that don’t. Many good arguments are justified precisely because the conclusion follows from uncontroversial highly plausible premises. For example:

  1. Killing people just because they have a certain hair color is wrong.
  2. If killing people just because they have a certain hair color is wrong, then killing people just because they red hair is wrong.
  3. Therefore, killing people just because they have red hair is wrong.

Both premises are uncontroversial and highly plausible, which makes the conclusion highly plausible and justified.

Six uncontroversial moral beliefs

1. It can be appropriate to love someone to the point of self-sacrifice. – When I say that something is “appropriate,” that means that it’s not inappropriate—it’s sufficiently justified. When I say something is inappropriate, that means we shouldn’t do it and there might be something “irrational” about doing it. First, I will explain how some emotions could be “appropriate.” Second, I will explain why self-sacrificial love seems to be appropriate.

(a) Emotions can be appropriate when they are based on justified beliefs.2 A rational person can have more appropriate emotions. All things equal, a person whose child dies should feel grief as opposed to joy.3 The loss of a child is usually bad. If a person feels joy because something bad happens, then that person is either insane or they mistakenly think something good has happened. One rule of thumb is “it’s appropriate to feel good in proportion the fact that something good has happened, and it’s appropriate to feel bad in proportion to the fact that something bad has happened.”

Examples of inappropriate emotions include the following:

  1. To hate someone for giving you a slice of cake tends to be inappropriate. That action does not usually warrant hatred because hatred only seems warranted by extremely horrific acts and giving someone a slice of cake tends not to be such a horrific act.
  2. To love money to the point of murdering people to take their money is inappropriate.
  3. To get so angry about a car tailgating you to the point of deciding you should murder that person is inappropriately extreme even though some anger could be warranted by the act.

Examples of appropriate emotions include the following:

  1. Being joyous that your friend had a child.
  2. Being angry that someone tortured a child.
  3. Feeling grief when a loved one dies.

(b) It is appropriate to love someone to the point of self-sacrifice—to the point that no reciprocal benefit can be attained. We often have a loved one and we are willing to provide that person food, shelter, an education, a kidney, or even protect that person though violent resistance to threats. A lot of our loving relationships are reciprocal and we expect to be rewarded from our sacrifices, but not all of them. Sometimes we know that no reward can be expected, but we still make sacrifices for the ones we love. Such love can be inappropriate if the person we love isn’t worthy of the love or is only using us, but it seems wrong to say that self-sacrificial love is always inappropriate. There are people we know will die soon who might be unable to reciprocate, but that doesn’t mean we should leave them out on the street to starve to death. The elderly who get Alzheimer’s disease are one example of a group of people who need to be cared for and can’t always reciprocate or appreciate our sacrifices, but they still deserve the care of their loved ones.

If emotions are never appropriate, then we couldn’t say that it’s ever appropriate to help loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease who can’t reciprocate our sacrifices. In fact, helping loved ones without any expectation for reciprocation would seem irrational because it wouldn’t help fulfill our personal desires. That result seems absurd.

2. It’s appropriate to have empathy for all people. – Just like love, empathy often motivates self-sacrifice with no expectation for reciprocal benefit. Whistleblowers, freedom fighters, and activists are often killed for trying to make the world a better place and fight corruption. Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. are three examples of activists who were murdered for speaking out. These people don’t just try to protect their families, they care about strangers and are willing to put their lives at risk to help strangers. That doesn’t mean these people are fanatics, fools, or irrational. Having empathy for all people (including strangers) is praiseworthy rather than inappropriate.

Self-sacrifice does not require that we actually die, it merely refers to altruistic acts that cost us something to benefit another. The empathy that our heroes have for strangers might seem unusual, but I think self-sacrificial empathy is normal. If a stranger wants an aspirin to get rid of a headache, then it seems appropriate to give her one. No expectation for reciprocation is required.

If it’s not appropriate to have empathy for all people to the point of motivating self-sacrifice, then it’s not appropriate to give an aspirin to a stranger and the heroic lives of Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. would not be praiseworthy. Instead, all of these actions would seem irrational based on the fact that they cost them something without an expected personal benefit. That result seems absurd.

3. Morality is overriding. – What morality demands and what we desire often conflict. I might want money and I might be able to get it by killing people, but it’s wrong to kill people to take their money. Desires don’t justify immoral behavior. What matters most is what is moral, not what we desire. Fulfilling desires can be perfectly rational, but we shouldn’t fulfill our desires in a way that conflicts with moral demands.

If morality isn’t overriding, then there is no reason to say that I shouldn’t kill people when it helps fulfill my desires as long as I could get away with it. That result seems absurd.

4. It’s rational to be moral. – To say that something is “rational” is to say that it’s not “irrational” and it’s sufficiently justified. We say beliefs are rational when we have sufficient reason to believe them and we say that an action is rational when it is based on sufficiently justified beliefs. It’s rational for people to disagree about whether or not intrinsic values exist, but it’s not rational for people to disagree about whether “1+1=2.” We know it does and it’s irrational to think otherwise.

To think that morality is rational means that there are true moral beliefs and an action is rational as long as it is a result of those beliefs. For example, it’s rational to believe that “killing people just because they have red hair is wrong,” and it’s rational to refuse to kill redheads based on that belief.

In fact, morality often conflicts with our desires, and we think it’s usually rational to fulfill our desires. It’s rational for me to try to make money to buy food. However, it’s not rational for me to kill strangers to take their money. Morality requires me to restrain my own happiness because it can conflict with the happiness of others—and those people count too.

If morality isn’t rational, then it would seem irrational to allow morality to interfere with fulfilling my desires. It seems strange to say that helping the poor, giving strangers aspirins, or refusing to hurt people to satisfy my desires is irrational. Such a result seems absurd.

5. Morality isn’t up to us. – Morality isn’t whatever I want it to be. Morality restricts our behavior and requires us balance our own happiness against the happiness of others. Morality isn’t what a culture wants it to be. Some cultures have wrong moral customs, such as racism; and some cultures undergo moral progress, such as when we abolished slavery. Moral beliefs aren’t true just because we believe they are true. Sometimes people have false moral beliefs.

If morality is up to us, then we could say that slavery isn’t wrong—just like people did for thousands of years—and we would be right. And if morality is up to us, then we could say racism isn’t wrong—just like people did for thousands of years—and we would be right. However, slavery and racism are wrong. The thought that we could make slavery or racism right seems absurd.

6. Some actions are right and some are wrong. – Perhaps the most intuitive core of morality is the belief that certain specific actions are right and some are wrong. Being a whistleblower, being a freedom fighter, and being an activist are at least sometimes the right thing to be. Killing people just because they have red hair is wrong. Slavery and racism are wrong.

If some actions are never right or wrong, then our heroes (Socrates, Gandhi, and King Jr.) never did anything right; slavery was never wrong; and racism was never wrong. These results seem absurd.

I have explained why certain highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs are the sorts of beliefs we think are true. These beliefs are intuitive and might even be part of our moral knowledge. These beliefs could be false, but that would require a huge shocking revelation. We shouldn’t reject these beliefs without a very good reason for doing so.

I didn’t fully explain or justify the fact that highly plausible uncontroversial beliefs are important to philosophy here, and I might write more about it in the future. However, I have written about this issue in more detail in “Common Sense Assumptions vs Self-Evidence.”

Update (9/2/2011): Made some clarifications and corrections.


1What is known intuitively is merely known but difficult to justify in words. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to justify in words. For example, I find it difficult to prove that “1+1=2” in words, but I think my belief is justified and I think I know that “1+1=2.”

2The Stoic philosophers were some of the first people to analyze emotions in terms of reasonable beliefs, and now philosophers discuss how emotions have a “cognitive component.” Go here for more information about the Stoics. Go here for more information about cognitivist theories of emotions.

3 There might be unusual circumstances when a person could appropriately be (somewhat) glad when their child dies, but that is not usually the case.


  1. Well, I certainly cannot dispute this. These are universal truth statement that should be indisputable. Excellently written.

    Comment by Romney — March 14, 2011 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

  2. I contravert number five unless you can tell me who or what creates morality. I lean toward the social contract theories. Emerson had his own morality and went to jail for it. He wrote _Civil Disobediance_ in explanation.


    Comment by Tom of the Sweetwater Sea — March 28, 2011 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

    • You can’t just argue, “I approve of a theory and it’s incompatible with an uncontroversial belief, so I reject the uncontroversial belief.” It’s a form of begging the question. Assuming that your theory is correct, lots of uncontroversial moral beliefs might be false. You should say something about my argument for that belief and if there is any reason to reject it other than your theory.

      This is my personal belief: I don’t think anyone creates morality, but I think some things that exist have intrinsic value. The value exists because of the same reason any other property exists. It’s just part of how reality is. It’s hard to explain the existence of value like it’s hard to explain the existence of minds. There could be something of a social contract to promote rather than destroy things that have value.

      The social contract theorist will often say something about our intuition that morality isn’t up to us. They want to say that a social contract shouldn’t encourage us to kill each other. They want to say that a social contract shouldn’t legalize slavery. And so on.

      Finally, I didn’t prove that these beliefs are all true. My point is that they are very plausible and intuitive. If you don’t think they are plausible or intuitive, then you need an argument to prove me wrong or what you have to say lacks philosophical relevance.

      Comment by James Gray — March 28, 2011 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

  3. […] Six Uncontroversial Moral Beliefs […]

    Pingback by Top 10 Posts on Ethical Realism from 2011 « Ethical Realism — January 15, 2012 @ 9:16 am | Reply

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