Ethical Realism

September 19, 2011

Being Risk-Averse, Hedging Our Bets, and Secularism in Philosophy

Filed under: epistemology,philosophy — JW Gray @ 10:26 pm
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We should generally prefer beliefs and theories that are well justified and don’t require ambitious metaphysical or religious assumptions. “Metaphysical” beliefs are beliefs about reality, and “ambitious” beliefs are difficult to justify in a satisfying way that would lead to anything resembling certainty. We attain absolute certainty when we have a belief that couldn’t possibly be wrong.

In particular, the existence of (a) God and (b) libertarian free will are often considered to be requirements for morality, but philosophers often prefer moral and metaphysical theories that don’t require God’s existence or the existence of libertarian free will because of the uncertainty involved. The fact that philosophers prefer theories that don’t require ambitious metaphysical or religious assumptions could be considered to be a preference for “secular” theories. This need not imply that the theories are atheistic because the theories might be compatible with multiple religions.

Risk-aversion is important because certain beliefs are controversial for a good reason—we are uncertain that they’re true. Risk-aversion can manifest itself as a form of “hedging your bets.” When we theorize in philosophy or decide what we should believe with confidence, it’s a good idea not to commit ourselves to uncertain beliefs because we would then risk having several false beliefs. We can minimize the risk of having false beliefs by making sure that our beliefs are justified without relying on uncertain beliefs (to the best of our ability).

The belief in God in isolation is less risky than believing something that would require the existence of God. For example, the belief that “killing men with red hair just because they have red hair is morally wrong”  is less risky than the belief that “killing them is morally wrong only if God exists.” In that case we risk having two beliefs debunked at the same time. If we decided that God doesn’t exist, we would risk finding out that killing men with red hair isn’t wrong after all. Therefore, it would be less risky and rationally preferable if we could justify the belief that killing these men is wrong without requiring a belief in God.

I will discuss (1) two examples of “risk-aversion” in philosophy, (2) justifications for risk-aversion, and (3) why risk-aversion is important.

Two examples of risk-aversion in philosophy

The first example is given by Seneca, who argues that being ethical is justified even if the world is guided by physical processes rather than a divinity (god). The second example is given by Fischer and Ravizza who argue that we can be morally responsible even if we don’t have free will.

Example 1

Many people assume that morality requires God. If God doesn’t exist, then nothing is morally right or wrong, good or bad and we would have no reason to be moral. Some theists have theories that explain where morality comes from, and they believe that morality comes from God one way or another. The Stoic philosophers seemed to agree, and they argued that we know right and wrong from our nature, which was given to us by a divinity called “Divine Reason” or “Universal Nature.” We have a natural impulse to care about people and help them, and this is a sign that caring about people is morally preferable in general. “[U]niversal Nature has constituted rational animals for the sake of each other, so that they might help each other in accordance with their respective merit and never harm each other.”1 Nonetheless, in epistle 16 of Letters to Lucilius Seneca gives an argument that being ethical (living life as a virtuous Stoic philosopher) is justified even if Divine Reason doesn’t exist and the universe is guided by physical processes instead.2

The point Seneca wants to make is that the justification for living ethically is stronger than the justification for the belief in Divine Reason (and whatever else follows from the existence of Divine Reason). We don’t need to have risky ambitious metaphysical beliefs concerning gods or physical processes to have a good reason to live ethically. It should be added that we are uncertain whether a god exists or whether the universe is fully guided by physical processes, but we are not uncertain that we should behave ethically. That is something we should be confident about.

Seneca believed in a god—Divine Reason—and he believed that we can know about morality because a god exists. However, he is even more certain that we should behave ethically, and he admits that there could be other explanations for why we’re justified to behave ethically other than the existence of a god. This “secular” reasoning is typical of philosophers and need not imply “atheism.” Philosophers continue to reason in a similar fashion to Seneca by discussing ethics without requiring anyone to believe in the existence of a god. Morality might come from God or it might not. Either way, we should be confident that morality exists and it’s important. If we found out God doesn’t exist, we shouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that morality doesn’t exist and we have no reason to behave ethically.

Example 2

In Responsibility and Control by John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, they argue that moral responsibility doesn’t require libertarian free will. “Libertarian free will” is the hypothesis that we have the power to make choices similar to a god or “prime mover”—that our decisions are uncaused except by oneself. The belief in libertarian free will is incompatible with determinism by definition. Determinism is the belief that everything has to happen exactly as it happens (perhaps because everything that happens is sufficiently caused by prior events and states of affairs). Many people believe in libertarian free will, and they believe that they are morally responsible (in part) because they have libertarian free will. However, we don’t have the technology to prove that free will exists or that determinism is true. We are uncertain about we should believe about these two metaphysical theories, and the theories are ambitious to the extent that we lack certainty about them.

Fischer and Ravizza find their theory to be preferable to theories that claim that moral responsibility requires libertarian free will insofar as it doesn’t require us to accept questionable metaphysical theories or states of affairs (i.e. free will or determinism). If moral responsibility does require libertarian free will, then we should be uncertain whether or not we have moral responsibility—but we aren’t. We should be confident that we are morally responsible. They summarize their conclusions in the following words:

Our contention is that even if causal determinism were true, there is a strong impetus to think that human beings should still be properly considered persons, morally responsible, and at least sometimes in control of their behavior. That is, even if we discovered that causal determinism is true, there is a strong tendency to think that this sort of discovery should not make us abandon our view of ourselves as persons and morally responsible agent (15).

Justifications for risk-aversion

First, one reason to want risk-averse philosophical theories is to get a handle on what we know with confidence. Risky “ambitious” beliefs are more likely to be false. We are uncertain whether they’re true or not. If we depend on risky beliefs in a theory, then the whole theory will be uncertain. That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for risky beliefs or speculation in philosophy. Seneca found it important to speculate about Divine Reason’s place in the universe, even though he also thought it was important to justify certain beliefs apart from the existence of Divine Reason.

Many philosophers give “common sense” or “intuitive” beliefs a privileged position when they are highly plausible and denying their truth seems absurd. The fact that morality and moral responsibility exist seems to be common sense, and we generally should not be required to accept risky beliefs to justify them. Finding out that a risky belief is false shouldn’t require us to reject such common sense beliefs (in general).

Consider that we know that “it’s morally wrong to kill men with red hair just because they have red hair.” Many such moral facts are known with near certainty and they imply the existence of morality and moral responsibility. We shouldn’t say that killing men with red hair isn’t wrong if we find out determinism is true or God doesn’t exist.

Second, there can be more than one metaphysical explanation for various phenomena. For example, the existence of moral responsibility and morality could be explained by free will and God, but an atheistic physical reality might also be able to explain the existence of such phenomena. The implication of saying that “morality requires God” is that there’s only one possible explanation for morality. However, that would require us to understand and refute all other possible explanations people come up with. It is rare in philosophy that we find out a fact only has one possible explanation.

Why risk-aversion in philosophy is important

Risk-aversion is important in philosophy for at least three reasons:

One, uncertain beliefs are more likely to be false and we would like to be confident about many of our beliefs. Any theory that requires ambitious metaphysical beliefs will not warrant our confidence. Just about every “religious” explanation or theory suffers from this problem. We shouldn’t be confident that they are true or that any theory that requires such ambitious beliefs are true.

Two, beliefs that warrant our confidence are more likely to be persuasive. If you have a theory about where morality comes from involving God, then atheists probably won’t be persuaded. If you have a theory about where moral responsibility comes from involving free will, then determinists probably won’t be persuaded. For the same reason we prefer secular arguments over religious arguments when we reject the religion involved. If an argument requires us to accept Buddhism and we aren’t Buddhists, then we will probably be unpersuaded.

Three, we need to be confident in certain beliefs to try to live life the right way. Holding uncertain beliefs can be dangerous. Consider someone with the “risky belief” that moral responsibility requires free will, but then rejects free will. That person could then reject moral responsibility and decide to hurt people. Our decisions are often based on our beliefs, and unreasonable beliefs can lead to immoral behavior.


1 Hadot, Pierre. Trans. Michael Chase. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. 234.

2 Seneca. Trans. Richard M. Gummere. Epistles 1-65. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 105-109. (A free online copy of the passage can be found at <>.)


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