Demythologizing Values

This series follows one entitled Demythologizing Religion (DR).  Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites.  Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at

– 1 –

Conventional and alternative religions alike have often presented myths as facts with significant implications for our values (per my DR series).  Yet, if these facts were true, their evaluation would still be a separate issue.  As the following thinkers argued, even assuming the existence of God or gods, or any such being, divine precepts are not the same as moral or normative values:

Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), Euthyphro 10-11:

“Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy?  Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?…  We agree that what is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, and not holy because it is loved by the gods…  But what [the holy or the good] really is, you have not yet said.”

Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality 1.1.5:

“[Some theologians contend] that there is nothing absolutely, intrinsically, and naturally good and evil, just and unjust, antecedently to any positive command or prohibition of God; but that the arbitrary will and pleasure of God… is the first and only rule and measure thereof.  Whence it follows unavoidably that nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just and righteous.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), “Natural Religion,” Lectures on Ethics:

“Religion is the application of the moral laws to the knowledge of God, and not the origin of morals.  For let us imagine a religion prior to all morality: then this would imply a relation to God, and would therefore consist in recognizing Him as a mighty lord whom we should have to placate.  All religion assumes morality, and morality cannot, therefore, be derived from religion.”

Antony Flew (1923-2010), God and Philosophy 5.20:

“[Plato asks] whether conduct is right because the gods command it or whether the gods command it because it is right.  The question is both profound and typically philosophical.  Indeed one good test of a person’s aptitude for philosophy is to discover whether he can grasp its force and point.  The point is this.  If you accept the first alternative then you are in effect defining moral words like right and wrong in terms simply of the will of the gods, or of God [such that] there can be no inherent moral reason why this rather than that ought to be thus commanded [and] the glorification of the righteousness of God [becomes meaningless].  If you accept the second alternative then you are insisting on standards of right and wrong… independent of God’s will.”

James Rachels (1941-2003), “God and Human Attitudes,” Religious Studies 7, 1971, p. 325, 6(2):

“We cannot determine whether some being is God without first checking on whether he is perfectly good [and hence] whether his commands to us are right.  Thus our own judgment that some actions are right, and others wrong, is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God.   …we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God’s command… for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title ‘God’ from the commander.”

Questions to consider:

Are moral or normative values as divine precepts not instances of mythology?  Does the legitimacy of any religion not presuppose an independent basis for evaluating its worth?

– 2 –

While Plato and his successors discredited the conception of moral values as divine precepts (see DV-1), the same tradition introduced the equally mythological notion that moral values are intuitive metaphysical absolutes, akin to eternal or immaterial entities occupying a reality beyond the empirical or natural realm.  However, thinkers such as the following helped to discredit this notion as well:

G.E. Moore (1873-1958), Principia Ethica 67:

“[It has been argued] that some knowledge of supersensible reality is necessary as a premise for correct conclusions as to what ought to exist…  [Such a view] rests upon the failure to perceive that any truth which asserts ‘This is good in itself’ is quite unique in kind – that it cannot be reduced to any assertion about reality… This confusion as to the unique nature of ethical truths is… involved in all those ethical theories which I have called metaphysical.”

A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), Language, Truth and Logic, chapters 1, 6:

“In general, the postulation of real non-existent entities results from the superstition… that, to every word or phrase that can be the grammatical subject of a sentence, there must somewhere be a real entity corresponding.  …as there is no place in the empirical world for many of these ‘entities,’ a special non-empirical world is invoked to house them…

“In admitting that normative ethical concepts are irreducible to empirical concepts, we seem to be leaving the way clear for the ‘absolutist’ view of ethics – that is, the view that statements of value are not controlled by observation, as ordinary empirical propositions are, but only by a mysterious ‘intellectual intuition.’  A feature of this theory, which is seldom recognized by its advocates, is that it makes statements of value unverifiable.  For it is notorious that what seems intuitively certain to one person may seem doubtful, or even false, to another.  …the reason why [such claims] are unanalysable is that they are pseudo-concepts.”

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 1, section 9:

“If there were objective values [in the strong Platonic sense], then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.  These points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists…  When we ask the awkward question, how we can be aware of [these entities], none of our ordinary accounts… will provide a satisfactory answer; ‘a special sort of intuition’ is a lame answer, but it is the one to which [this type of] objectivist is compelled to resort.”

R.M. Hare (1919-2002), Moral Thinking 12.5:

“The vice of intuitionism lies in the surreptitious transition from… psychological facts to alleged moral properties which actions are supposed to have, but which are really nothing but the tendency to evoke [certain] feelings.  Intuitionism is only a cloak for subjectivism…”

Questions to consider:

Is intuition not a sense of knowing “that” without knowing “why,” thus requiring critical examination for possible prejudice?  When intuitionists assert that certain moral absolutes are incapable of proof, might we take this to mean that such values are indefensible assumptions?  Are not absolute metaphysical or non-natural values (that just “are”) too odd and actually counterintuitive?

– 3 –

Given that supernaturalism is implausible (see DR-18 to DR-20), and also that values cannot be grounded on divine precepts or metaphysical absolutes (see DV-1, DV-2), we may conclude that values must be wholly explainable within a naturalistic framework.  As indicated by the following thinkers, however, moralistic appeals to the laws of nature have posed theoretical problems similar to those associated with religious or metaphysical mythology:

J.S. Mill (1806-1873), “Nature,” summary/conclusion:

“The word Nature has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregate of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention.  In the first of these senses, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature is unmeaning; since man has no power to do anything else than follow… some one or many of nature’s physical or mental laws.  In the other sense of the term, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature [is] irrational and immoral: irrational, because all human action whatever consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature; immoral, because the course of natural phenomena [is] replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence…”

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, 1958, p. 1:

“To have a law conception of ethics is to [imply] that what is needed for conformity with the virtues… is required by divine law [though] it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians.  But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of ‘obligation’ it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts.”

Kai Nielsen (b. 1926), “The Myth of Natural Law,” intro & V, God and the Grounding of Morality:

“Natural moral law conceptions, grounded as they traditionally have been on metaphysical or theological principles, are myth-eaten…; aseptic, demythologized conceptions of ‘natural law’… are essentially sound and are fundamental in displaying the moral foundations of legal systems.

“…even if there are natural laws of the kind the Thomist and classical natural law theorist talks about, it still does not follow that they have provided us with an adequate foundation for a rational ethic.  …it cannot be the case that we can discover what we ought to do simply from apprehending what is… for in making an ascription of purpose [to nature] we have already made a moral judgment in which we have of necessity brought into play our own [preconceived values].  We cannot discover or apprehend what we ought to do [simply] from observing the behavior of men, from observing what the universe is like, or from hearing what God commands.”

Questions to consider:

Does this concept of natural laws not rely on a misleading analogy between laws in the sense of physical regularities and laws in the sense of commands by a ruler, as well as between these essentially factual claims and laws in the evaluative sense of binding norms?  Is it not obvious that these are very distinct types of propositions, and more particularly that the first two cannot dictate the third?  Should it make any theoretical difference whether the supposed laws, considered only as facts, are held to be natural, metaphysical, or supernatural, insofar as they would still be mere facts, incapable as such of dictating normative principles?

– 4 –

Once we realize that our values must be wholly explainable within a demythologized, naturalistic framework (see DV-1 to DV-3), we also find, like the following thinkers, that all of our values must originate with those we just happen to have “naturally,” as subjective feelings and interests:

David Hume (1711-1776), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, appendix I, section V:

“It is impossible… that one thing can always be a reason why another is desired.  Something must be desirable on its own account, and because of its immediate accord or agreement with human sentiment and affection.  Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee and reward, merely for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys, it is requisite that there should be some sentiment which it touches…  Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.”

William James (1842-1910), “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” II:

“[Evaluative] words can have no application or relevancy in a world in which no sentient life exists.  Imagine an absolutely material world, containing only physical and chemical facts… without a God, without even an interested spectator…  Surely there is no status for good and evil… in a purely insentient world…  Betterness is not a physical relation.  In its mere material capacity, a thing can no more be good or bad than it can be pleasant or painful.  …the first step in ethical philosophy is to see that no merely inorganic ‘nature of things’ can realize [values].  Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them…  The moment one sentient being, however, is made a part of the universe, there is a chance for goods and evils really to exist…  So far as he feels anything to be good, he makes it good.  It is good, for him.”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), What I Believe I:

“The philosophy of nature is one thing, the philosophy of value is quite another…  Undoubtedly we are part of nature, which has produced our desires…  In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad…  It is we who create value and our desires which confer value…  It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature – not even for Nature personified as God.”

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 1, section 10:

“…both the adjective ‘good’ and the noun ‘goods’ are used in non-moral contexts of things because they are such as to satisfy desires.  We get the notion of something’s being objectively good, or having intrinsic value, by reversing the direction of dependence here, by making the desire depend upon the goodness, instead of the goodness on the desire.  And this is aided by the fact that the desired thing will indeed have features that make it desired…  It is fairly easy to confuse the way in which a thing’s desirability is indeed objective with its having in our sense objective value.  The fact that the word ‘good’ serves as one of our main moral terms is a trace of this pattern of objectification.”

Questions to consider:

Whatever may happen to be the status of objective values, is it not a given that we at least have desires and the like?  Are not subjective experiences then, by default, the source of all our values insofar as no other source can be found?  Can there be any other possible source of values for us except reason and external facts?  Yet, can these have any relevance to our values except to the extent that they are also relevant to the feelings and interests which we or others might have?

– 5 –

Because subjective feelings and interests are the source of all values (see DV-1 to DV-4), thinkers such as the following have helped to demythologize normative “ought” or “should” values by limiting them to what have become known philosophically as hypothetical imperatives, defined as instrumental norms which say, in effect, that we ought to do A if we desire or seek B:

David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part I, section I:

“In every system of morality… 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… instead of the usual… propositions is and is not, I meet with [a] proposition… 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, it is necessary that… a reason should be given for… how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.  …this small attention would… let us see that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason [apart from feelings and interests].”

Brand Blanshard (1892-1987), Reason and Goodness, chapter XII, sections 14-16:

“[We are] so made as to desire [certain things], and fulfilling and satisfying such desires is what ‘good’ means…  Now this gives the meaning of ‘ought.’  To say that I ought to do something is ultimately to say that if a set of ends is to be achieved… then I must act in a certain way…  But to make dutifulness itself a good… independently of other goods [is] hardly intelligible… it is derivative from the good that such regard for duty brings about.   …by itself it is a vacuous good.”

Philippa Foot (1920-2010), “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” conclusion & note 8, Virtues and Vices:

“…those who think they can close the matter [of duty] by an emphatic use of ‘ought’… are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral ‘ought’ a magic force…  Either it is possible to create reasons for acting simply by putting together any silly rules and introducing a non-hypothetical ‘should,’ or else the non-hypothetical ‘should’ does not [as such] imply reasons for acting.”

A.C. MacIntyre (b. 1929), “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’,” Philosophical Review, 68, 1959, p. 451, V:

“[Hume] is asserting that the question of how the factual basis of morality is related to morality is a crucial logical issue [and that] we can connect the facts of the situation with what we ought to do only by means of one of those concepts which Hume treats under the heading of the passions and which I have indicated by examples such as wanting, needing, and the like.”

Richard Joyce (b. 1966), The Myth of Morality 2.5 – 2.6:

“Moral obligations exist… only if reasons for action exist…  This wider non-moral notion… comes from practical rationality…  Practical rationality… yields only hypothetical imperatives, and therefore cannot be appealed to as a way of vindicating ‘moral inescapability’.”

Questions to consider:

To establish normative “ought” values without begging the question, do we not have to begin with purely factual “is” premises?  Yet when we begin with facts other than those about what is desired or needed, can we ever reason from “is” to “ought”?  Is the hypothetical imperative not the only type of norm that can avoid Hume’s fallacy of deriving a new relation from others “entirely different from it”?

– 6 –

Since all normative values are means for pursuing subjective ends (see DV-1 to DV-5), moral values can only be means for pursuing the subjective ends of others as one’s own.  Hence, the ground of our morality, divested of mythical authority, is nothing more than our natural human capacity for empathy or sympathy, as the following thinkers explained:

David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part III, section I:

“To discover the true origins of morals… we must take the matter pretty deep…  We may begin with considering anew the nature and force of sympathy…  Now, as the means to an end can only be agreeable where the end is agreeable, and as the good of society, where our own interest is not concerned, or that of our friends, pleases only by sympathy, it follows that sympathy is the source of the esteem which we pay to [conventional] virtues…  From thence we may presume that it also gives rise to many of the other virtues, and that qualities acquire our approbation because of their tendency to the good of mankind.  This presumption must become a certainty, when we find that most of those qualities which we naturally approve of have actually that tendency…  For having found that such tendencies have force enough to produce the strongest sentiment of morals, we can never reasonably, in these cases, look for any other cause of approbation or blame; it being an inviolable maxim in philosophy that where any particular cause is sufficient for an effect, we ought to rest satisfied with it, and ought not to multiply causes without necessity.”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VI, section 5:

“[Morality] depends on benevolence, that is, one person’s positive interest in another person’s interest.  To be benevolent here means not that I treat you well so far as it happens to suit my existing interests to do so; my concern for your interests is an independent interest [via empathy].  Taking your desires and aversions, your hopes and fears, your pleasures and pains, in short, the interests by which you are actually moved, I act as though these interests were my own…  When you are at the same time benevolently disposed to my interests, we then have the same problem of reconciling the same interests, except that my original interests form the content of your benevolence and your original interests the content of mine…  No will [or norm] is here introduced over and above the wills of the two persons, but since the two wills now represent the same interests, they will have achieved a community of end and a cooperative relation of means.  In each person the new socialized purpose will have become dominant over his original interests.”

Annette Baier (b. 1929), “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?” in Women and Moral Theory, # 2:

“Self-interest, and the capacity to sympathize with the self-interested reactions of others, plus the rational, imaginative, and inventive ability to think about… likely human consequences… rather than an acquaintance with a higher law, are what a Humean appeals to…  Morality, on Hume’s account, is the outcome of a search for ways of eliminating contradictions in the ‘passions’ of sympathetic persons who are aware both of their own and their fellows’ desires and needs, including emotional needs.  …what corrects [one sentiment] will be contrary sentiments [and the] drive to minimize conflict both between and within persons.”

Questions to consider:

Can it be just a coincidence that, despite religious and secular disagreement about what grounds morality, there is a consensus that morality at least involves putting oneself in the place of others?  Is it possible that the disagreement reflects the lack of any further ground of morality?

– 7 –

Our capacity for empathy or sympathy is the only non-mythical ground of our moral values (see DV-1 to DV-6).  Normative morality is thus relative or contextual in the sense that its requirements are entirely dependent on what those in any given situation would find acceptable after identifying with each other’s desires and needs, but it is also objective or universal in the sense that such intersubjective harmonization implies a constant norm in the form of a mutual Golden Rule.  This concept of relativized objectivity in ethics has been suggested by thinkers such as the following:

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VII, section 6, & chapter VIII, section 8:

“…there is no [final moral] court of appeal short of the reflective social agreement in which all persons acting as representatives of their interests, and expanding their interests to embrace the interests of others, arrive at a unanimous decision.  This is the principle, never fully applied, which serves as a guide to the creation of a society that shall be as just as possible…  Among precepts the ‘Golden Rule’ holds a unique place.  Its wide acceptance in both ancient and modern times, in paganism and in Christianity, and among [many diverse] moralists… is not a coincidence.  For it is of the essence of morality that each moral agent should accept the interests of others as he accepts his own; that he should put himself in the other’s place, and the other in his place, and so recognize an interest as an interest in its own terms no matter to whom it belongs…

“[This intersubjective standard] satisfies the requirement of cognitive universality and objectivity…  It places itself in all points of view, and fits them together.  …since it is interest as such which generates good, and a harmonious relation of interests which constitutes moral good, [this principle] is applicable to all interests and persons…  Hence the norm of harmonious happiness is doubly universal.  It is universal in the theoretical sense: its nature and its implications are objective, and the judgments in which it is employed are equally true for all judges; and being abstracted from particular interests, it is applicable to all human situations.  It is also universal in the social sense: its promised benefits accrue to all…”

Peter Singer (b. 1946), How Are We to Live?, chapter 11:

“…I am just one being among others, [with] a personal perspective on the world…  But [I can] see that others have similarly subjective perspectives, and that from ‘the point of view of the universe’ my perspective is no more privileged than theirs…  Consistently… the major ethical traditions all accept… a version of the Golden Rule that encourages equal consideration of interests [and promotes] a universal ethic…  Yet I am not defending the objectivity of ethics in the traditional sense.  Ethical truths are not written into the fabric of the universe: to that extent the subjectivist is correct.  If there were no beings with desires or preferences… nothing would be of value and ethics would lack all content [but] once there are beings with desires, there are values that are not only the subjective values of [an] individual being…  When my ability to reason shows me that the suffering of another being… matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering matters to me, then my reason is showing me something that is undeniably true.  I can still choose to ignore it, but then I can no longer deny that my perspective is a narrower and more limited one than it could be…  [This outlook] is as close to an objective basis for ethics as there is to find.”

Questions to consider:

Is the Golden Rule, considered apart from religious or metaphysical claims, not a principle of objectivity understood in terms of intersubjectivity (other as self)?  Does its universality not derive paradoxically from its complete relativity to every context as viewed from all perspectives?

– 8 –

Normative morality, without the support of myth, seeks only to harmonize interests on the basis of a secular Golden Rule (see DV-1 to DV-7).  Yet, because the harmony sought is an evaluative standard transcending the actual interests it unites, in the way that a unified whole is greater than the sum of its separate parts, it accounts for the sense of morality’s unique irreducible features as depicted here by the following thinkers:

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Practical Reason, part I, book I, chapter III:

“[Moral duty] can be nothing less than a power which elevates man above himself [and] connects him with an order of things that [determines] the sum total of all ends (which totality alone suits such unconditional practical laws as the moral).”

W.D. Ross (1877-1971), Foundations of Ethics, chapter XIII:

“…I must consider equally all the elements, so far as I can foresee them, in the state of affairs I shall be bringing about.  If I see that my act is likely to help [one] and to hurt [another], I am not justified in ignoring the bad effect…  It is the whole nature of that which I set myself to bring about, not that part of it which I happen to desire, that makes my act right or wrong…  This relation [of a moral interest in others’ welfare] is not one which can be stated in purely non-ethical terms, as the relation of being an object of interest can be stated; it involves the ethical or [seemingly] non-naturalistic term ‘worthy’ or ‘suitable’.”

C.L. Stevenson (1908-1979), Facts and Values, essay 2, sections 5-6:

“The traditional interest theories… neglect emotive meaning [and] dynamic usage [in our moral language]…  Ethical judgments are social instruments.  They are used in a cooperative enterprise that leads to a mutual readjustment of human interests.”

R.M. Hare (1919-2002), Moral Thinking 12.8, 12.9:

“…what will determine our final moral judgment is our total system of preferences.  …it is that principle which we prefer, all in all, should be applied to situations like [the given one] regardless of what position we occupy.  …if we are to arrive at a moral judgment about the case, [we need] to coordinate our individual preferences into a total preference which is impartial between us.”

Mark Platts (b. 1947), Ways of Meaning, chapter X, section 1:

“…moral judgments are autonomous of non-moral judgments.  The parallel to exploit in understanding this autonomy is the relation [between] a certain arrangement of black dots on a white card and… a face there pictured to be seen.  …we do not see the face by attending to that dot-arrangement… in terms free of picture and face vocabulary…  [Similarly, we do not] make moral judgments… by attending to the non-moral facts… in vocabulary free of moral import…”

Questions to consider:

Although opposed to reductive ethical naturalism, do these thinkers here depict anything inconsistent with a conception of morality as the mutual harmonization of interests on their own terms?  Is this not an irreducibly normative standard which nonetheless is implied by actual desires which people seek to reconcile, just as a harmonious whole, which cannot be explained solely by its separate parts, nonetheless is implied by their adjustment to each other?  Does the opposing argument that non-moral facts can yield only a non-moral conclusion not then commit the fallacy of composition by reasoning that what is true of parts must be true of the whole?

– 9 –

Morality transcends subjective feelings and interests in the way that a whole transcends its summed parts (see DV-1 to DV-8).  A demythological corollary of this holism is that, just as there is no whole beyond its interrelated parts, each an integral element in the unifying process, so there is no morality beyond mutually adjusted desires, each an integral element in the process of seeking social harmony.  Some of the implications of such a realization have been captured by the following thinkers:

William James (1842-1910), “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” II & III:

“I know well how hard it is for those who are accustomed to what I have called the superstitious view, to realize that every de facto claim creates in so far forth an obligation.  We inveterately think that something which we call the ‘validity’ of the claim is what gives to it its obligatory character, and that this validity is something outside of the claim’s mere existence as a matter of fact.  It rains down upon the claim, we think, from some sublime dimension of being, which the moral law inhabits…  But… such an inorganic abstract character of imperativeness, additional to the imperativeness which is in the concrete claim itself, [cannot exist].  Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make…  The only possible kind of proof you could adduce [against satisfying it] would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way…  Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount…

“Since everything which is demanded is by that fact a good, must not the guiding principle for ethical philosophy (since all demands conjointly cannot be satisfied in this poor world) be simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can?  That act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions.”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), The Conquest of Happiness, chapter VII:

“In a rational ethic it will be held laudable to give pleasure to anyone, even to oneself, provided there is no counterbalancing pain to oneself or to others…  [One] should be destitute of superstitious morality [based on sin].”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VI, sections 2-3:

“Owing to the fact that it requires inclinations to be overruled and disciplined, duty comes to be identified with disinclination – with doing what one does not want to do or leaving undone what one wants to do…  [Yet any] denials derive their only moral justification from the affirmations for which they make room…  In order to promote an organized harmony of life [people] must limit and adjust interests without destroying them…  …in moral organization the whole serves the parts, or the whole only for the sake of the parts.  The parts are interests, and they are organized in order that they, the constituent interests themselves, may be saved and fulfilled.”

Paul Edwards (1923-2004), The Logic of Moral Discourse, conclusion:

“Intuitionism and… non-naturalism in ethics… support the morality of self-denial and sin…  [but] usually have very little to offer [as] empirical justification… In the last resort [such moralists] fall back on God’s alleged prohibitions… conscience or… our moral sense…  Now, once a person rejects non-naturalism, he will demand a factual justification for moral judgments…”

Questions to consider:

Paraphrasing James’ question, should we not satisfy as many desires as possible?  What can morally count against any desire, however apparently bad, except the interests of others?

– 10 –

There being no morality beyond mutually adjusted desires, the only grounds for moral appraisal of anyone’s subjective ends are the affected ends of someone else (see DV-1 to DV-9).  A further step in demythologizing morality can thus be taken by recognizing that ideals of the self, whether in terms of self-interest or self-realization, self-consistency or self-discipline, are simply matters of individual preference, with no moral significance, except as they concern others.  Similar or related positions have been proposed by thinkers such as the following:

J.S. Mill (1806-1873), On Liberty, chapter IV:

“[Self-regarding matters] are only a subject of moral reprobation when they involve a breach of duty to others, for whose sake the individual is bound to take care for himself.  What are called [our] duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others.”

John Dewey (1859-1952), Human Nature and Conduct, intro, & part 4, section IV:

“There are [those] who take seriously the idea of morals separated from the ordinary actualities of humanity…  Some become engrossed in spiritual egotism.  They are preoccupied with the state of their character, concerned for the purity of their motives and the goodness of their souls [or realized ideal selves].  The exaltation of conceit which sometimes accompanies this absorption can produce a corrosive inhumanity which exceeds the possibilities of any other known form of selfishness.  In other cases, persistent preoccupation with the thought of an ideal realm… induces a futile withdrawal into an inner world [where] needs of actual conditions are neglected…

“If a [person] lived alone in the world… the question ‘Why be moral?’ … would [not] arise.  As it is, we live in a world where other persons live too.  Our acts affect them.  …Right is only an abstract name for the multitude of concrete demands… which others impress upon us, and of which we are obliged… to take some account.  Its authority is the exigency of their demands…”

Kai Nielsen (b. 1926), Why Be Moral?, chapter 14:

“…pure practical reason [or mere consistency], even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality…  Underlying morality, for it to be what it purports to be, there must be a pervasive attitude of disinterested care for all human life [or] all sentient creatures…”

Jan Narveson (b. 1936), Morality and Utility, chapter VIII:

“…self-regarding acts have no specifically moral worth… notions of moral duty ‘to the self’ are out of place…  The reason why it is improper to speak of its being a ‘duty’ in the moral sense… is that it’s my business, and I can call it off whenever I want.  The matter is entirely up to my own judgment.  …moral [values] just don’t come into the self-regarding sphere.  This does not mean that we are demeaning the self-regarding sphere or claiming that it is unimportant.  Quite the contrary: in a sense, it is the only important sphere, for it is everyone’s interest that is the concern of morality, and this means the same as everyone’s ‘self-interest.’  The point is, there is no need for the peculiarly moral kinds of praise and blame, which have an impersonal authority independent of self-interest, in matters of self-interest [or self-regarding discipline].”

Questions to consider:

How could a personal ideal ever morally justify disregarding the interests of others?  Would this not rather disqualify the ideal as a moral one?  Yet, insofar as others’ interests are not concerned, why cannot one be, in moral terms, completely liberated?

– 11 –

Evaluative ends being naturally determined by given subjective experiences (see DV-1 to DV-5), and moral demands being determined by the natural sharing of others’ experiences (see DV-6 to DV-10), it seems that, within a non-mythological naturalistic framework, these causal determinants would render largely illusory the free or responsible will generally assumed by normative judgments.  Thinkers such as the following make a case for such free will skepticism:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Beyond Good and Evil 21:

“The causa sui [or cause of oneself] is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic…  The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense… involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and… to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamp of nothingness… [Thus] we act once more as we have always acted – mythologically.”

Galen Strawson (b. 1952), Real Materialism, chapter 13, section 1, & chapter 14, section 6:

“It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and… that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible… …both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience… [Further,] it is absurd that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is [supposedly] in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is.

“…if we are to be truly deserving of praise and blame for our actions, then, since our intentional actions are necessarily a function of how we are, mentally, we must be truly responsible for how we are mentally, at least in certain vital respects.  We must be genuine ‘originators’ of ourselves, and our natures…  But the attempt to describe how we could possibly be true originators of ourselves in this way leads self-defeatingly to infinite regress (quite apart from being quite fantastically unrealistic): for even if one could somehow choose how to be, and then bring it about that one was that way, one would in order to do this already have to have existed prior to that choice, with a certain set of [unchosen] preferences about how to be, in the light of which one chose how to be.”

Derk Pereboom (b.1957), “Hard Incompatibilism” in Four Views on Free Will, # 3, section 7:

“…agents cannot be responsible for decisions that are undetermined because they are not produced by anything at all, for then agents quite obviously cannot be the source of the will to perform them…  [Also] agents are not morally responsible for decisions causally determined by factors beyond their control.  …consider the first [assumed] free choice an agent ever makes.  …she cannot be responsible for it, since she cannot be responsible for the effort of will from which it results…  Because the agent cannot be responsible for the first choice, she also cannot be responsible for the resulting character formation.  And then… she cannot be responsible for the second choice either [and so on] for all subsequent choices.”

Questions to consider:

By necessary implication, must not everyone, to the extent identically constituted and identically situated, have an identical and hence predetermined will?  Could acausal free will be an illogical, mystified holdover from pre-scientific supernaturalism?  Would even an immaterial, self-existent soul or deity be responsible for how it just happened to be?  Is not ultimate free will meaningless?

– 12 –

Acausal free will is a mythical entity, for our ends and choices are determined by subjective experiences ultimately beyond our control (see DV-1 to DV-11).  Though this means that we can only act “as if” we were free and responsible, such as-if responsible freedom paradoxically constitutes a real type of practical autonomy, because of our predetermined ability to resist certain predetermined desires for the sake of other such desires, as described by the following thinkers:

John Locke (1632-1704), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book II, chapter xxi, 47-8:

“…the mind having… a power to suspend the execution and satisfaction of any of its desires… is at liberty to consider the objects of them, examine them on all sides, and weigh them with others…  [Such] power to suspend the prosecution of this or that desire [is] the source of all liberty [and] that which is (as I think improperly) called free will…  [Yet this] is the very improvement and benefit of [freedom].”

Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929), “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68, 1971, p. 5, IV:

“A person’s will is free [insofar as] he is free to have the will he wants.  This means that, with regard to any of his first-order desires, he is free either to make that desire his will or to make some other first-order desire his will instead…  There is no more than an innocuous appearance of paradox in the proposition that it is determined, ineluctably and by forces beyond their control, that certain people have free wills [in the above sense] and that others do not.”

Keith Lehrer (b. 1936), “Freedom and the Power of Preference” in Freedom and Determinism, # 2:

“…we at a certain stage have no preferences [but only] impulses and desires… that drive our behavior…  Then we acquire the higher-order mind… that allows us to represent and think about our desires and beliefs, to prefer the satisfaction of some desires and not others…  There might be causation all the way around, before and after my preferences.  But some of them would [in a sense] be free.  When I prefer what I do because I prefer to have the preference structure I do… I have all the freedom of preference that interests me.”

Ann Ferguson (b. 1938), “Can I Choose Who I Am?” in Women, Knowledge, and Reality, 2nd ed., # 7, II, 4 & note 7:

“…it is the possibility of… second-order reflexive consciousness that allows one way out of the Determinism / Moral Responsibility dilemma.  Although the inputs to… the self-process are determined by the material and social conditions in which I find myself, my ability to reflect on, adopt, and act on reconstitutive self-strategies… is what gives me the space for agency and moral responsibility [and] clarifies the sense of the claim that I can choose who I am.  …even reconstitutive self-projects may be completely socially determined [though] we agents… think of ourselves as freely choosing them.  [The] problem of moral agency… may have to be simply dissolved by the pragmatic need to assume that we are not completely determined…”

Questions to consider:

Just as a free act is a matter of acting in accordance with one’s will, might we think of a free will as a matter of willing in accordance with one’s will?  Can a will be free, in a practical sense, other than to the degree that it accords with itself, so that what one prefers at any given time is in harmony with what one would choose as most important, all things considered?  Is this not why autonomy, and even psychological or spiritual authenticity, are often associated with an integrated personality?

– 13 –

Rather than depend on the myth of acausal free will or ultimate responsibility, genuine morality assumes only a naturally predetermined ability to harmonize naturally predetermined desires and interests, plus a predetermined capacity for sharing the desires and interests of others (see DV-1 to DV-12).  This naturalist-determinist framework, far from diminishing morality as some fear, yields the most humane equitable outlook, illustrated by thinkers like the following:

Ted Honderich (b. 1933), How Free Are You?, chapters 9-10:

“Determinism offers… escape from a mordant kind of self-dislike and self-disapproval…  Consider personal feelings about others…  We have the prospect of withdrawing from the negative or resentful ones which [are] owed to our image of origination, the idea that those who disregard or injure us really could have done better by us.

“…our retributive desires… are dependent on taking the other person’s action as not only voluntary but also originated…  All of these desires are vulnerable to belief in determinism.  They cannot persist.  …any institution of punishment [insofar as its] recommendation is that it is retributive… should be abandoned…  What is true of punishment is true to a greater or lesser extent with… other institutions or practices [based on] political and social philosophies [with] elements having to do with desert [as opposed to need].”

Bruce Waller (b. 1946), Freedom without Responsibility, chapter 14:

“…the no-fault naturalist denial of [ultimate] moral responsibility is likely to enhance individual freedom by encouraging a more egalitarian society.  Careful focus on the full details of our environmental histories [and our genetics] eliminates moral responsibility and thus offers solid, worldly grounds for equality: exact equality of just deserts.  That brings the principle of equality down from the transcendent realms… and anchors it in the gritty environments that shaped us and were – at critical points – not of our own choosing or making.  And, if everyone is precisely equal in just deserts, then the vast differences in wealth and power among individuals in our society are unjust [as are] the severe practical restraints… imposed by such inequities.”

Sam Harris (b. 1967), Free Will:

“…I have to admit that if I were to trade places with [someone else], atom for atom, I would be [that person]…  If I had truly been in [his place] – that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state – I would have acted exactly as he did.  There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.  The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive…

“In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself…  This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity – and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics.  Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an [eternally punishable] soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems…  And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.”

Questions to consider:

Upon reflection, can we not see a clear link between determinism and the empathic core of morality that compels us to see others as ourselves in like circumstances?  Is the basis of our common humanity not the fact that we are ultimately the same when under identical influences?

– 14 –

Having seen that even God has to be justified by an independent morality (see DV-1), explainable within a demythologized, naturalist-determinist framework in terms of mutual empathy (see DV-2 to DV-13), we also find, for reasons given by thinkers such as the following, that instead of requiring God, morality actually points to atheist ethics:

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), The Miracle of Theism, chapter 6, section (e):

“…to explain an intrinsic to-be-done-ness or not-to-be-done-ness [as more than a human] reflection or projection, it is natural to take this as an injection into reality made by a universal spirit, that is, something that has some analogue of human purposiveness…  [Yet,] although the objectivity of prescriptive moral values would give some inductive support to the hypothesis that there is a god, it would be more reasonable to reject the kind of moral objectivity that is required for this purpose than to accept it and use it as a ground for theism…  When this moral objectivism is replaced by a subjectivist or sentimentalist theory… it is easy to explain [our] moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution [without God]…  There is no good reason for introducing a god even as an essential part of the content of moral thinking.”

J.J.C. Smart (1920-2012), Atheism and Theism, #1, section 13:

“Since God [traditionally conceived] is not constrained by physical necessity [or anything comparable] there is no need for him to use painful means to attain a good end [in this or another life]…  A common argument that is meant to reconcile God’s omnipotence, omniscience and goodness with the existence of evil is that evil is due to misuse of the free will with which God has endowed us…  Natural evils… provide a formidable difficulty for the free will defence.  They have nothing to do with free will.  …even if we ignore natural evils the free will defence does not work.  …any sensible notion of free will [must be] compatible with determinism…  [Therefore] God could have set up the universe so that we always acted rightly, and so for this reason alone the free will defence does not work…  In any case natural evils provide the biggest difficulty for the theist.”

Elizabeth Anderson (b. 1959), “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” in Philosophers without God, #17:

“…morality, understood as a system of reciprocal claim making, in which everyone is accountable to everyone else, does not need its authority underwritten by some higher, external authority.  It is underwritten by the authority we all have to make claims on one another.  Far from bolstering the authority of morality, appeals to divine authority can undermine it…  Appealing to God rather than [to] those affected by one’s actions amounts to an attempt to escape accountability to one’s fellow human beings.  …if we take with utmost seriousness the core evidence for theism, which is the testimonies… found in Scripture, then we are committed to the view that the most heinous acts are morally right, because Scripture tells us that God performs or commands them.  Since we know [for the above reason] that such acts are morally wrong, we cannot [accept the] evidence for theism recorded in Scripture.  We must at least reject that part of the evidence that supports morally repugnant actions…  The moralistic argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”

Questions to consider:

Even if the classical or biblical deity were real, would we not be morally bound to reject him as our God, because of the evil with which he is associated?  Might atheism be viewed, not just as religious disbelief, but as an ethical way of life, or a form of moral protest?

– 15 –

With a case having been made for a non-mythical account of ethics from a naturalistic, atheistic standpoint (see DV-1 to DV-14), it can be further argued, as implied by the following thinkers, that even if there is a perfect God, or an all-benevolent will, we should still live according to a worldly morality:

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), The Age of Reason, part 1, section 14:

“…the practice of moral truth, [as] a practical imitation of the moral goodness of God, is no other than our acting toward each other as he acts benignly toward all.  We cannot serve God in the manner we serve those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done [through] selfish devotion…  Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike, and, therefore, must be on a level with the understanding and comprehension of all.  Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a trade…  When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up systems of religion incompatible with the word or works of God in the creation, and not only above, but repugnant to human comprehension, they were under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word that should serve as a bar to all questions, inquiries and speculation.  The word mystery answered this purpose, and thus it has happened that religion… has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter 23, section 6:

“True religion must [seek] the moral end of harmonious happiness [and thus] ally itself with the secular conscience…  The only good for which it is possible to claim preeminence is that harmony of all interests, which is the object of an all-benevolent will: a will which wills the fulfillment of all wills.  …an otherworldly and supernaturalistic religion… in its straining after an image of perfection attempts to transplant it to another realm in which the actual human interests are purged away [so that it] is less, and not more, than the fullness of life on earth…  There appears to be no loftier and more impelling vision of the good than the prolongation and progressive betterment of that life which is experienced and enjoyed here and now… whether those who have died survive to participate in [such a life].”

Robert McKim (b. ?), Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity, chapter 6, section 4:

“There is… some reason to think that, if God exists, it must not matter greatly to God whether we believe…  If it were very important that we should accept theism or any particular form of theism, our circumstances probably would be more conducive to it [for all equally]…  The situation, in effect, probably is that either God does not exist or God exists, but it is not terribly important that we believe here and now that God exists…  …the puzzles that surround God’s hiddenness provide us with some reason to doubt that it is important, even from God’s point of view, that we should hold theistic beliefs.”

Questions to consider:

Insofar as it would be morally wrong to sacrifice others’ present needs for the sake of uncertain remote consequences, should we not apply the same principle to uncertain eternal consequences?  Could a good God expect us to go against conscience in using others this way?  Given the uncertainty, is not the most likely divine plan for earthly life some type of blind experiment to see how we respond to this world on its own terms?


About Vaughn Barnett

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