Category Archives: Ethical Theory

Quick Thoughts 15: Intuitive Moral Knowledge

Commenter T. Paine recently shared an article that attempts to prove God’s existence by appealing to moral knowledge that we supposedly obtain through the conscience. In its own words:

The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God…

However, since the article fails to show how the impulses or “information” that we receive from the conscience is actual knowledge, the entire argument falls apart.

This is a common problem in ethics. Our strong feelings about moral beliefs and our desire to have others obey them often lead us to speak of them as if they have the full force of fact, but we rarely bother to take the actual step of establishing them as such. When pressed to explain why, for examples, charity is good or murder is bad, we unconvincingly appeal to natural rights, gods, or empathy, as if we did not need to establish the existence and relevance of natural rights and gods or explain why empathy should define morality.

If we are a bit more honest, we appeal instead to an even less convincing authority: intuition. “I just know that it’s wrong,” we might say. But we all know that what seems to be true is not always true, so we need to be more rigorous.

When we speak of knowledge, we tend to mean one of two things: accurate information either obtained through observation or determined through reason, i.e. empiricism or rationalism. If we know the laws of physics, it is because we have observed our universe; if we can solve a logic problem, it is (perhaps) because we have intuitive knowledge of logical principles, e.g. modus tollens. Logical rules are necessarily true, as it is impossible to either provide an example of an exception or even imagine a universe in which exceptions could occur. Much of our knowledge combines the two approaches: we observe and deduce.

When we say that we “just know” that we are right, we attempt to carve out a space for moral knowledge in rationalism, in necessary truths. However, since we can imagine a world in which our moral claims do not hold true, our moral claims are not necessarily true and therefore cannot fall under this category.* Since they are also not observable (“murder is bad” cannot be observed unless “bad” is defined as some observable phenomenon, which is not the case here), we have no reason to call such moral convictions knowledge.

Some alternative perspectives on morality offer ways to speak of moral claims as truth. Desirism, for example, would have us think of a moral proposition (“one should do X”) as a statement about desires, e.g.

Premise 1: Laws against murder are necessary for a peaceful society
Premise 2: I want a peaceful society
Conclusion: Therefore, I should support laws against murder

However, to do this effectively (especially to convince other people to do what we think is right), we have to let go of the false authorities and excuses that we use to give our moral convictions artificial, undue weight. A desire is not worthwhile because a god says so or because it seems right; it is worthwhile to the extent that it allows us to satisfy other desires.

*We also have diverse moral convictions, so if everyone were to claim that he “just knows” that his convictions are true, we would still not know which set of convictions–if any–is true.

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The Goals of Secularism

There are three major schools of thought concerning the importance of secularism, each with its own problem of internal inconsistency in either concept or practice.

The first school believes that secularism is necessary because of the diversity of religious beliefs.  To keep the peace and serve everyone’s interests, we must not favor any one set of beliefs over others.

The second school believes that secularism is necessary because it prevents legislation that is based on unproven or even unprovable beliefs in the supernatural, which can lead us astray in the physical world that we share.  Moreover, opening the door to one religion opens the door to all religions, since they all have the same faith-based justifications.

The third school simply believes in the separation of church (not religious belief) and state, such that no religious institution can dictate the course of the country and no government can dictate the beliefs and behaviors of a religious group.  Such a policy supposedly allows religious liberty to flourish. Continue reading

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On the Possibility of Free Will

One way to consider whether or not we have free will (or even whether or not it could exist) is to compare how people would behave in a deterministic universe to how they would behave if they had free will. Continue reading

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Responsibility and Choosing Beliefs

I have often heard the claim that, while we do not choose our race or sex, we do choose our religion and other beliefs.  This is usually coupled with the claim that we are responsible for our choices.  Given these two premises, we are therefore responsible for our beliefs.

I will challenge the first premise in this post.  Continue reading

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Bad Religious Ethics, Essential Reading, Ethical Theory

Defining Morality

I see on Alonzo Fyfe’s blog that someone has recently challenged the idea that desirism is a normative philosophy.  Fellow blogger and frequent commenter John Myste has leveled the same accusation here; he prefers to call desirism a “life plan” or “life strategy.”  I wish to address this matter. Continue reading

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Response to T. Paine: Principles and Freedom

The following is part of my response to “Constitution is the Core of Core Conservative Principles”Continue reading

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Animals and Ethics, Part 2

Last time, I concluded that there is no convincing moral argument against harming animals, which is to say that there is no rational, self-interested argument against it that would apply to humans who do not already have an aversion to doing so.  Now, I will consider a few arguments that conclude that harming animals is acceptable.  Continue reading

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Animals and Ethics, Part 1

Animal rights supporters have essentially one argument:  Animals are sentient; therefore, we should not hurt them.

Sometimes they appeal specifically to animals’ ability to feel pain, but sentience implies this, so the first argument is sufficient.  Sometimes they appeal to rights, but rights are not natural or God-given; humans must agree to recognize them.  Sometimes they appeal to a human responsibility to care for the Earth and all of its creatures, but, like rights, humans must first recognize responsibility.

Therefore, I will consider only the merits of the moral claim that sentient beings should not be harmed.  Continue reading

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Men of Principle

Men of principle are not necessarily praiseworthy.

Such men may have terrible principles that should not be promoted.

Such men often have little concern for moral reasoning; they believe that their one-size-fits-all solution is sufficient.

Such men are often uncompromising, unchanging, proud, and self-certain.  For them, pragmatism is a vice.

Such men may suffer needlessly and even make others suffer needlessly, all for the sake of consistently adhering to an idea.

Such men, in short, often put lesser desires before the greatest.

Why, then, do we praise them?  Continue reading

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Criticisms of Utilitarianism, Part 2: Rules Break Down

Philosopher David Lyons wrote that rule utilitarianism, which advocates that we adopt the rules of conduct that produce the greatest utility, would collapse into act utilitarianism because every rule would be adjusted for the sake of exceptions until the guiding principle of ethics were simply:  do whatever produces the greatest utility in the given situation.

How can a rule utilitarian respond?

Rebuttal 1:  Presumption of Perfect Knowledge

Part of what makes rule utilitarianism appealing is our imperfect knowledge.  We implement a rule to address cases that are similar precisely because the similarities are more significant, as far as we know, than the differences.  Because of our imperfect knowledge and the difficulty of quantifying utility, we simply cannot be effective act utilitarians.  If we could be, we would have no use for the inferior rule utilitarianism, so Lyons’ criticism is irrelevant.

Rebuttal 2:  Invalid Argument

Good rules contribute to social stability and cohesion, both of which increase utility.  We cannot discount this utility when considering the supposed collapse of rule utilitarianism into act utilitarianism.  There may be a point at which the utility that a society loses through rule complexity, which can undermine stability and cohesion, outweighs the utility gained from it, which is limited to fewer and fewer people as the complexity grows.  If that is true, then some form of rule utilitarianism is still preferable to act utilitarianism.  Lyons ignores this possibility to reach his conclusion.  In this way, he seems to join many others in underestimating the scope and complexity of utilitarianism.

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