A question of ethics – part three

[Read part one]

[Read part two]

If moral realism is the idea that moral propositions express objective facts, moral anti-realism is the idea that they do not. Anti-realism can take three potential forms:

  1. moral statements are propositions which express subjective facts (individual subjectivism);
  2. moral statements are propositions which are false (error theory); or
  3. moral statements are not propositions at all (non-cognitivism).

By describing moral judgments in terms of individual expressions of intrinsic value, we have already seen the first form, and by examining emotivism and prescriptivism we have also already seen the third. We saw that both the emotional statements of the emotivists and the command statements of the prescriptivist can be expressed in terms of a description of the underlying emotion or command — `I have an emotional distaste for murder’ and `I disapprove of murder’ — which would make non-cognitivism all but indistinguishable from individual subjectivism, so we needn’t expend much effort worrying about the distinction between them. Error theory is the remaining form that we have yet to cover in detail.

Error theory arises from a brand of skepticism, which argues that we are justified in holding any moral belief. The moral skeptic would require that the moral believer justify his beliefs before accepting them, and as we saw in the preceding section on moral realism, so far at least nobody has been able to satisfactorily do this. We would not, the moral skeptic would argue, accept a statement such as `Mars is the largest planet in the Solar System’ without requiring some justification for that statement, and moral statements should be no exception. Unless the believer is able to justify why a statement such as `murder is wrong’ is true, then it follows that he should not hold that belief. The moral skeptic would not accept the argument from individual subjectivism because, as we have seen, it provides no basis for why anybody else should conform to one’s individual values, and since this is the very basis for morality then individual preferences cannot justify moral beliefs.

The moral skeptic proper therefore considers that there can be no such thing as moral knowledge, and moral statements can therefore not be judged either true or false. The moral nihilist, on the other hand, goes further and says that all moral statements are false. This may be a result of the argument from queerness already mentioned, or simply as a natural result of the `is-ought’ problem which states that values can never be derived from facts. It could, for instance, be argued that suicide is never in the self-interest of any rational agent, and that there is always a motivation for any rational agent to avoid suicide, and that there is therefore a sound rational basis for saying one should not commit suicide, but the moral nihilist may simply deny that it’s possible to sensibly get from `against self-interest’ to `should’. One might wish to avoid suicide if one does not want to die, but the error theorist would argue this is an extrinsic motivation, not an intrinsic one, and that if something is not instrinsically motivating then it makes no sense to describe it in moral terms.

If we cannot justify moral realism, and we cannot accept individual subjectivism (including non-cognitivism as described above) as a basis for morality — without denying that people do indeed have individual intrinsic values as they pertain to the conduct of others — then error theory appears to be what we are left with. If an exhaustive search leaves us without any evidence for the existence of objective moral properties, if we have good reason to suspect that there are no objective moral properties, and if subjective moral values are unable to form a sensible basis for a system of morality, then we are lift with little choice other than to accept that moral statements are false. Indeed, the inability of either consequentialism or deontologism to give an adequate account of morality and the seemingly hodge-podge way in which actual moral opinions do appear to arise may have led us to this conclusion a lot sooner. In the words of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, `although the arguments for moral skepticism are hard to refute, most people reject their conclusion.’

There is really little more to be said on the subject of moral nihilism. Our analysis of the alternative ideas have almost brought us to this conclusion all by themselves. An honest and impartial examination of the subject can only lead us to the conclusion that the only ways to avoid accepting that all moral statements are false are to either employ a definition of `morality’ which actually has nothing to do with morality at all, or to retreat into belief. Neither alternative is acceptable, and we are forced to side with the moral nihilists. Yet, as the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy correctly states, `most people reject their conclusion.’ It only remains for us to examine this rejection, and to consider whether it is necessary.

Moving on

`Most people reject’ the conclusions of moral nihilism for the simple reason that it renders statements such as `rape is wrong’, `torturing babies for sexual pleasure is wrong’, and `murdering six millions Jews was wrong’ as false statements. Opponents hold that such a view, if not self-evidently absurd, is at least offensive both to `common sense’ and to simple human decency. It is not sufficient for us to merely reply `tough! That’s where the analysis leaves us!’ because we have already admonished Peter Singer for being too quick to `follow the argument where it leads’ and we must be sure we are not making the same mistake. If there is indeed an apparently enormous discrepancy between our conclusions and `common sense’ then we must dispose of it if we are to be taken seriously.

A much easier objection to deal with initially is the idea that moral nihilism is somehow dangerous, that it will enable people to commit `immoral acts’ in good conscience. It would be too easy to answer that the moral nihilist doesn’t consider any act to be `immoral’, and so could not possibly commit any `immoral’ acts. It is worth pointing out, however, that if moral nihilism is true, then it has been true forever, and if this is the case then its truth has clearly not prevented the development of the moral sensibilities that people actually do hold, and neither has it prevented to development of justice systems to punish those acts that people actually do find `immoral’. What moral nihilism does imply is that whatever it is that resulted in the development of these things, it wasn’t morality, and if it wasn’t morality, then an acceptance of moral nihilism should have no effect at all on them. In other words, the moral nihilist argues that given the reality of these sensibilities and justice systems, something other than morality must have created them, and whatever that something is can clearly survive the conclusions of moral nihilism.

This may at first seem like an absurd exercise in semantics, but a closer examination will reveal a serious distinction to be made. For instance, many Christians argue that without a belief in God and a belief in the moral codes that are contained in the Bible, people will have no motivation to be `good’, and society will accordingly collapse. Yet, we clearly see millions of atheists who live perfectly `moral’ lives without having recourse to such a moral code. One possible answer to this is that atheists have a moral code all of their own, and that it’s just not a religious moral code. Christians may argue that having such a code is not enough; without the threat of divine punishment, an atheist may know `right’ from `wrong’, but he has no motivation to act `morally’. Yet, once more, this criticism crumbles in the face of the evidence which shows that atheists do act `morally’, arguably more `morally’ than Christians generally do.

The most obvious and intuitive solution to this is simple: people simply are not motivated to act `morally’ as a result of a moral code. If the Christian position is to be taken seriously, we have to accept that all human beings are only a hair’s breadth away from becoming horrible murderers, rapists, and child abusers at any moment, and it’s only some kind of mantra along the lines of `Don’t kill! It’s bad to kill! Don’t do it! Really, don’t kill anyone, and don’t rape anyone, either. Just think before you kill or rape anyone, and remember it’s bad to do it. Seriously now, I know you’re thinking about it, but just don’t!’ that is preventing them from doing so on a moment-by-moment basis. A moment’s examination of one’s own daily life will clearly reveal that one does not refrain from constant murder and rape because one continually tells oneself that it’s bad, but because one simply has no desire to do it. That is, people are not kept in check by a moral code, but by a simple lack of inclination to act `immorally’.

Giving it some more thought, this must almost inevitably be true. If we discard the obviously absurd idea that a moral code was handed to us by a supernatural being, then that moral code had to come from somewhere. From whence, then, did it come? Both common sense and evolutionary ethics would suggest that we don’t act morally because we are subject to a moral code, but that a moral code developed because we act morally. In other words, a moral code is a codification of existing attitudes to behaviour, and not an artificial standard designed to create common modes of behaviour. Under this idea, people do not refrain from murder because they consider it `morally wrong’; rather, they consider it `morally wrong’ because they refrain from doing it, because it is already `unacceptable behaviour’ to them.

We might further suggest than in the case of illegal acts, it is the threat of punishment which acts as a far greater deterrent than a perceived need to adhere to a moral code. Indeed, by arguing that the threat of divine punishment is required to motivate `moral’ action this is exactly what the Christians are saying. It may be arguable that there is little incentive to act `morally’ if one thinks there is a good chance one might get away with it, and that the idea that `God sees everything’ provides a greater incentive, but a glance at the statistics shows that the number of Christians in jail across the world suggests the threat of divine punishment is not quite the disincentive that many Christians would like us to believe it is.

If it is true that we refrain from `immoral action’ because our inbuilt `moral sense’ disinclines us towards such actions, then it follows that the presence or absence of a belief in objective morality should make no difference at all to the types of acts that we commit. It therefore follows that a moral nihilist is no more likely to engage in what would be considered `immoral acts’ than anyone else, simply because it was not a belief in objective morality which was motivating him to act `morally’ in the first place, but a simple internal disinclination to particular types of action. The moral nihilist simply argues that this disinclination is nothing to do with morality, but just to personal — and often shared — values.

There are instances where something resembling an explicit `moral code’ may be useful. Many professions and corporations in general have an `ethical code of conduct’ which specifies actions to be avoided. Some of these codes are quite arcane and counterintuitive. It may on the face of it, for instance, seem reasonable for an accounting firm to provide bookkeeping services as well as an audit to its client. They are certainly knee-deep in the client’s numbers, and familiar with the accounting issues relating to the client’s transactions, so there would appear to be a great deal of scope for efficiencies here. But, for U.S. public companies, auditors are prohibited from providing bookkeeping services to their clients, because it would result in them essentially auditing their own work, which is perceived to lead to a lack of independence. If the auditors found an error, for instance, how motivated would they be to reveal this to their client, since it would almost amount to an admission of incompetence?

It can be argued, therefore, that some kind of code of conduct is necessary not because people must be browbeaten into moral submission, but because without one they would simply not be aware of the ethical issues involved, and would therefore likely act `unethically’ out of sheer ignorance. This can be extended into society in general. If one hears from a friend who works at a local department store that a sale is starting tomorrow, few people would think twice about the ethics of getting there nice and early to take advantage of the great deals; yet to take a conceptually very similar situation, how many people would know that it was unethical, if nobody explained it to them and enshrined it in a moral code, to start buying up stock in a corporation because a friend on the inside told you a merger was going to be announced in the morning? It can be argued, therefore, that moral codes do not have a merely motivational element, but also an informative element.

The moral nihilist would, of course, respond that a disbelief in moral objectivity does not prevent one from creating any codes of conduct that one likes; they are simply not moral codes of conduct. A similar response can be made to those who would say, `what, so because murder is not “wrong,” you’re just going to let people go around committing murders unpunished?’ There is nothing inconsistent about subscribing to moral nihilism but still supporting the punishment of murderers. A society could say, for instance, that `we, collectively, do not wish to be murdered, so if you try to murder any of us, we’re going to stop you and we’re going to lock you up, and the “rights” or “wrongs” of the matter simply do not come into that.’ A policy of punishing criminals can be supported on the basis of pure self-interest, on the basis that a society where criminals are allowed to go unpunished is simply not the kind of society one wishes to live in; there is no reason why morality has to enter into the question at all.

At this point, objectors may be reeling at what they perceive to be the sheer semantic pointlessness of it all. `You’re describing,’ they may say, `the exact same “moral” world that we have today; you just insist on describing it in terms other than “morality.” What’s the difference?’ There are two important differences.

The first is simple intellectual honesty. As we have stated, people really do believe in the existence of objective morality, in the idea that there really is an objective reason why people intrinsically `should’ or `should not’ perform certain acts. If there is no such objective reason, then it is simple more intellectually honest to stop believing that there is, and to talk about the actual forces at work behind judgments about human conduct instead of some imaginary ones. To those who care about intellectual honesty and integrity, this motivation is sufficient in itself.

But there is a second reason which is far more practical. Many people like to believe that morality — and, by implication, the laws of the society they live in — are based on some kind of rational and agreeable principles, such as that of avoiding harm, or promoting fairness, or encouraging `life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Yet, as we have seen throughout this essay, the actual moral opinions that people hold are far less clear-cut, and in many cases arise from almost arbitrary ignorance, spurious theology and prejudice. To take an example, for hundreds of years active homosexuality was a criminal offense in western countries. In the United Kingom, homosexual acts were not decriminalised until as recently as 1967, and in many parts of the Middle East it is still a crime punishable by death. Even today in more `enlightened’ countries the debate rages about gay marriage, and many homosexuals are actively discriminated again in the eyes of the law. The important point is that there is no rational basis behind such legislation. This kind of discrimination does not occur because people think such discrimination is `fair’, or because homosexuality somehow causes others `harm’, but simply because opponents consider homosexuality to be wrong. This is a prime example of a genuine, modern day, practical occurence of active discrimination and harm which results from — and solely from — a belief in objective morality.

Now, under the preceding argument, if there was a widespread acceptance of moral nihilism it would still be perfectly possible for such discrimination to continue to occur. It would be perfectly possible for people to say `I don’t give a monkey’s about the “rights” or “wrongs” of it; I simply don’t want homosexuals to have the same rights as I do, because it disgusts me, I find them disgusting, and I don’t want them sharing the same society as me,’ and if enough people shared that view, it would still be perfectly possible to get that discrimination enshrined in law. Yet, we would suggest that with the intellectual honesty that moral nihilism brings, it would be far less likely to happen. Many people would be willing, in quite good conscience, to support such a policy of discrimination if they really do believe it to be `wrong’, particularly if there is religious support for that opinion. But, if it were entirely out in the open that the real issue was not the `wrongness’ of it, but a simple case of sheer prejudice, then we suggest that people would be far less likely to support such a policy, because we live in an age where — in western countries, at least — blind prejudice is generally not considered to be a sound basis upon which to construct legislation.

Thus, there is plenty of evidence which points to that fact that a belief in objective morality can be positively harmful to many groups, and that a disbelief in objective morality which revealed the actual — rather than imagined — motivations for behaviour would be likely to alleviate that harm. Far from the alarming picture of moral nihilism leading to widespread `moral decay’, then, there are good grounds for suggesting that a disbelief in morality would actually lead to behaviour which would be considered more `moral’ by current standards. Just as the intellectual honesty of the widespread acceptance of the scientific method has done a lot to banish superstition in the realms of physical explanation, so we suspect would the intellectual honesty of moral nihilism go a long way towards banishing superstition in the realms of regulation of human conduct. We suggest that the replacement of false explanations with true ones can only have a positive effect on society.


Throughout our analysis, we’ve seen how a belief in an objective morality is all but impossible to support, and how a subjective `morality’ is actually no morality at all. This leaves us with a conclusion that a belief in morality at all is a mistake. We’ve further seen that the abandonment of such a belief has none of the negative consequences that many of the naysayers believe that it has, and that the intellectual honesty such abandonment brings is in fact likely to have positive consequences on society.

In closing, it is worth pointing out that during this long essay we have not even touched upon the benefit to the individual that such an abandonment can bring. The belief in morality, or even the assumption that one’s own personal values — or those of others — represents some kind of `practical morality’ which can be believed in for `convenience’ can be psychologically crippling, and can lead to self-inflicted harm which can dwarf that imposed upon one by society. Yet, to even introduce this topic in detail would require an essay far longer than this one, and the interested reader is advised to consult other works of the author for more on this subject.

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