Troy Jollimore: how do we replace religiously-based ethics with secular ones?

Alert reader Dennis called my attention to a new article in aeon Magazine (free online) by poet/philosopher Troy Jollimore.  The piece is on secular ethics, is called “Godless but good,” and has the subtitle, “There’s something in religious tradition that helps people be ethical. But it isn’t actually their belief in God.”

Jollimore’s thesis is that secular ethics hasn’t succeeded in framing a philosophy that can appeal to believers.  He outlines what he sees as the two major programs of secular ethics, Kantian ethics (e.g.: “one should act in a way that the maxim behind your act could become a universal law”), and utilitarianism (e.g., “act in a way that maximizes universal happiness/well being/ so on”).  He notes that neither (he might have added Rawls’s appealing “veil of ignorance” argument) has had any traction with religious people, who continue to assert that their morality is grounded in religion.

But how can that grounding occur? Jollimore reiterates Socrates’s Euthyphro argument, which I still consider a definitive refutation of the idea that morality comes from God’s dictates. (Note: if you cite this argument, remember that it involves piety rather than goodness, but I believe they were equivalent to Socrates—or at any rate can be used as equivalents.)  Jollimore’s exposition of this argument is superb, and destroys the notion of God-given morality. He also argues persuasively that atheists aren’t immoral, so there’s no danger of becoming a ravaging beast if you give up your faith.  Nevertheless, the faithful continue to argue that their religion is a bulwark of their faith. Why?

Jollimore points out the usual problems with utiliarianism or Kantian ethics, and of course every system of secular ethics is imperfect, though noneas bad as religiously-based ethics. Jollimore then argues that there is, however, another religiously-based way of grounding ethics— one that resonates with people more than does secular ethics; and this grounding has nothing to do with divine command.  It is that, according to Jollimore, secular ethics is emotionally sterile, while religious ethics engage deep emotions like empathy and love, emotions that are part of our everyday experience. It also requires a strong and upright character—something that, he says, is also grounded by religion.

Kantian and utilitarian approaches have been both fruitful and influential, and they get a lot of things right. But they share an impersonal, somewhat bureaucratic conception of the human being as a moral agent. The traits that are most highly prized in such agents are logical thinking, calculation, and obedience to the rules. Personal qualities such as individual judgment, idiosyncratic projects and desires, personal commitments and relationships, and feelings and emotions are regarded as largely irrelevant. Indeed, Kant argued that actions that were motivated by emotions — acts of kindness performed out of compassion, for instance — had no moral worth; a worthy action was one motivated simply by the logical judgment that it was the morally correct thing to do. For utilitarians, meanwhile, each moral agent is only one among a great multitude, and the kind of impartiality the theory demands prevents the individual from giving personal emotions or desires any special consideration. A person’s feelings, preferences and commitments are supposed to play almost no role in decision-making.

This is in stark contrast to most religions, which tend to preserve the deep connection between the ethical and the personal. This is true even in those religious traditions that emphasise obedience to God’s will; the moral view of the Old Testament, for instance. And the connection is further emphasised in many streams of both Christianity and Buddhism, which place great emphasis on the cultivation of the virtuous personality and on moral emotions including love and compassion. When I talk with religious believers about their faith and their morals, I am struck by how closely and deeply connected both their faith and their morality tend to be to their deepest personal concerns, how richly interwoven these things are into the general fabric of their lives.

Many religious believers feel skeptical about modern secular ethics in part because they cannot see any possibility for this sort of integration between theory and experience, between moral principles and how life is actually lived. Such theories neglect the personal: they privilege rationality over emotion, the abstract over the particular, obedience to rules over individual judgment. And, on the whole, they have had little to say — and have sometimes actively resisted having anything to say — about such old-fashioned notions as character and virtue.

So how, as secularists (Jollimore is one), do we get people to accept a morality based on reason? We don’t, he says. Instead, Jollimore adv0cates “particularism”: we don’t adhere to moral rules, or even have a codified moral philosophy, but judge each case as it occurs, according to our past experience, wisdom, and empathy. He notes novelist Iris Murdoch (especially her book The Sovereignty of Good) and John McDowell (a professor of philosophy at Pitt) as role models of particularism:
In addition to being a philosopher, Murdoch was of course a magnificent novelist, and this fact is not incidental. For Murdoch, the most crucial moral virtue was a kind of attentiveness to detail, a wise, trained capacity for vision, which could see what was really going on in a situation and respond accordingly. The sort of psychological insight and attentiveness to detail necessary for writing fiction was also, for Murdoch, what enables a person to live a morally good life. ‘It is obvious here,’ she wrote, ‘what is the role, for the artist or spectator, of exactness and good vision: unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention. It is also clear that in moral situations a similar exactness is called for.’
For Murdoch, what so often keeps us from acting morally is not that we fail to follow the moral rules that tell us how to act; rather, it is that we misunderstand the situation before us. When we describe the situation to ourselves, we simply get it wrong. To get the description right — to accurately grasp the nature of the motivations at play, to see the relevant individuals in their wholeness and particularity, and to see what, morally speaking, is at stake — is to grasp the ‘shape’ of the situation, in the words of Jonathan Dancy, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. It is to see things in the right way, from the proper angle, and with the correct emphasis. Once this is achieved, according to Murdoch and Dancy, it will be apparent what needs to be done, and the motivation to do so will follow naturally. Faced with a situation that demands compassion, the virtuous person responds, spontaneously, with compassion; she doesn’t need to reason herself into it.
As a particularist, then, Jollimore argues that when making moral judgments we should simply adopt Aristotle’s notion of “practical wisdom”:
For Aristotle, ‘practical wisdom’ meant the kind of sophisticated and judicious individual judgment that is necessary to deal with the world’s moral complexity. The virtuous person is the person who is capable of judging well, and on this sort of view the only possible definition of moral rightness makes explicit reference to such a person. Since there is no set of rules that dictates right action in all situations, we can only say that the right thing is what the ideally wise and virtuous person would do.
As an example of how to make such judgments, he cites the Dalai Lama’s book Beyond Religion. Here’s how Gyatso makes judgments:
[W]hen called upon to make a difficult decision, I always start by checking my motivation. Do I truly have others’ well-being at heart? Am I under the sway of any disturbing emotions, such as anger, impatience, or hostility? Having determined that my motivation is sound, I then look carefully at the situation in context…. So while I encourage the reader to internalise a personal value system, it would be unrealistic to suppose that matters of ethics can be determined purely on the basis of rules and precepts. Matters of ethics are often not black and white. After checking to be sure that we are motivated by concern for the welfare of humanity, we must weigh the pros and cons of the various paths open to us and then let ourselves be guided by a natural sense of responsibility. This, essentially, is what it means to be wise.

This all sounds well and good, but I have two beefs. The first is that I’m not sure how particularism can be defended given that every person considers themselves wise, virtuous, and able to judge well. There is then no rational way to adjudicate between disparate moral views.  Granted, morality is not objective, but at least one can use rational principles like consistency or relevant empirical evidence to inform decisions (I suppose Jollimore would agree with that).  Truly, though, I don’t see how emotionality—besides the usual concern that people be treated well and society functions well—can improve matters.

Now I don’t think any moral system is perfect. But I don’t see how saying, “Let the wise people judge what is moral” improves matters.

I liked Jollimore’s piece, but I wanted to take one more exception to it.  And that is this: I don’t think the reason people ground their morality on religion is largely because religion engages personal concerns. That may play a role, but I think there’s something else. And that is the feeling many of us have that morality is largely innate—our moral judgments are often gut reactions, based on some inner feeling that we simply know what is right.

That innateness is, in fact, often used as evidence that morality comes from God, for where else could such ingrained feelings of rightness derive? Recall that Francis Collins, the accommodationist director of America’s National Institutes of Health, uses “The Moral Law” (innate feelings of right and wrong) as scientific evidence for God.

But, of course, innate feelings of right and wrong can come from two nonreligious sources: evolution and childhood indoctrination in secular ethics. I suspect that many of these innate feelings come from evolution, simply because many moral judgments about difficult situations don’t seem to depend on the ethnicity, background, or religious belief of the “decider.” (This is the work of Mark Hauser and his colleagues.) And the work of Frans de Waal and others is beginning to show the rudiments of moral judgments in our close relatives. So Collins is wrong: the “Moral Law” need not come from God.

Can we then eliminate the main opposition to atheism—the view that it erodes morality—by teaching people that innate feelings of right and wrong need not involve God? I doubt it. That would involve an education in science and philosophy that most people simply don’t want.  But there’s no harm in trying, and at any rate it’s fascinating to read about how primates like chimps and capuchin monkeys show intimations of morality.

Here are capuchins demonstrating notions of fairness, from a TED talk by Frans de Waal:


  1. Myron
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    Background information:

    * Moral Particularism (in the SEP):

    * Moral Particularism (in the IEP):

  2. Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    This question is not directly on point, but I’d be grateful if anyone can help me understand something. For atheists who deny that morality is objective, how do you avoid the descent into relativism, so to speak. If there is no objective basis for morality, how can we ever reasonably allege than any purported moral claim, no matter how ludicrous or cruel, is wrong?

    My own view is that secular morality gets little traction because people think it can’t be objective, and that what secularists should be doing is convincing people that there is an objective basis for secular morality. In short, I’m with Harris and Shermer on this. I recognize this view is controversial even within the secular community.

    So, for people who think morality is not objective, on what basis can any moral claim ever be said to be wrong?

    • Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink


      That seems plausible to me. People may resist secular ethics because they disagree with the metaethics, not with the normative ethics. They want to know why morality would be objective (= truth of moral facts does not depend constitutively on anyone’s attitudes or situations).

      Now, I think, and I’m sure many here would agree with me, that divine command ethics isn’t really objective either. And Jerry may be right that most people don’t want the education in metatethics necessary to see why secular ethics can be objective. But that might just be because philosophers have only recently come around to ethical objectivism, and so in turn, there may not be as many well-known arguments for it.

      • Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        Ah, I seem to be logged in as “ventzone”. I have no need and no wish to hide my identity. My name is Drew Vogel, and I approve this message.

        Tom UA,

        In what sense is divine command ethics not objective? I can see that different people will have different opinions as to what those divine commands actually are, and there is in practice no way to resolve those disagreements. However, assuming that divine command theory is true, then there exist divine commands, and the content of these commands is independent of any human subjectivity. They are what they are, objectively, whether or not we can in practice determine what they are. It is in that sense that I think secular morality, too, is objective. There is no guarantee that any given moral question can in practice be answered with recourse to reason and evidence alone, but there are objective answers in principle.

        • Vaal
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:58 am | Permalink


          “Objective” is normally (at least philosophically) taken to be a truth that is “mind-independent.” That is, the truth is not dependent on the opinion of a person/subject. It’s not just limited to human beings.

          If an Alien showed up and said he believed the bible is true, or the earth is 6,000 years old, or that the earth is larger than the sun…would those become “Objective Truths” simply because that opinion came from a non-human? No. Same with a God.
          A God having the opinion “Stealing is wrong” is simply adding one more opinion, to which you can ask “why should I think his statement to be true?”

          (Christian apologists like William L Craig love to use this implicit equivocation, where
          God’s commands become “objective” merely because it is coming from a source external to us human beings).

          As for Divine Command Theory and objectivity, actually it CAN be in principle objective. That’s one of the results of the Euthyphro Dilemma. One horn of the dilemma points out that if what is “good” is good because God commands it, then morality would be subjective and arbitrary. But the other horn suggests that if God commands something BECAUSE it is “good” then there must be some outside standard that even God must recognize – it can’t be changed by God’s opinion. Which suggests an objective standard of good.

          The problem is this places The Good as not being dependent upon God, and most theists don’t want that (though some DO take that horn of the dilemma, others have taken the arbitrary horn, and a lot argue, poorly, for a “middle way” that evades both horns).

          Putting aside for the moment the objection that there is no good evidence for God, in one sense it could be plausible to base our morality on God’s commands: If there is some objective morality, say one based on all the reasons for good actions, then who better than an All Knowing God to know those
          reasons? Hence, we can trust God’s judgement over our limited view of the problem and obey His commands.

          One of the fatal problems with this is epistemological: How do you know, or decide, whether to trust any being, even a Being claiming to be All Knowing and All Good? The Being could be lying, or evil, or have interests in misleading you. So how do you decide whether the Being is good or trustworthy? Answer: using your own moral judgement. So rather than actually deriving morality from God’s commands, God will always have to measure up to your existing standard of morality in order to be called “good” or trustworthy to begin with.



          • Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

            Vaal, divine command theory is objective, even if its content is not mind-independent with respect to God. In a universe with a God who a) commands things, and where b) obedience to God’s commands is the ultimate standard of morality, morality is objective in the sense that moral propositions can be either true or false, and made so by objective facts about the world. In a universe with God, God’s commands are an objective fact about the world.

            In the real world, that Jerry Coyne writes a blog called “Why Evolution is True” is an objective fact about the world. That doesn’t mean the blog is independent of the author’s mind.

            • gbjames
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

              “Jerry Coyne writes a blog…”

              Uh… There are those who would say otherwise.

            • Vaal
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink


              No, if we are talking about good deriving from God, then that makes morality subjective. Facts that rest upon the opinion of an individual is the very definition of “subjective.” If you ask “is liver and onions good?” that’s asking for the subjective report of any individual and it doesn’t matter if you or I answer the question, or a King, or a God. So long as we are looking to the opinion of a personal, subjective being, it is subjective in nature.

              The same goes if we ask God “Is rape bad?”
              If there is no EXTERNAL standard and the answer rests solely on God’s opinion, then that exemplifies the very nature of subjectivity.

              And the “oughtness” of God’s opinion no more logically transfers to us than it would if a King, or God opined that liver and onions is good.

              I can say “Liver and onions tastes bad.”
              There is an objective fact as to whether that is my opinion or not (it’s true). And everyone else in the world who would deny the fact of that being my opinion would be objectively wrong. But that concerns the fact of “whether Vaal holds that opinion or not.” The actual GOODNESS of liver and onions is not logically transferable to being a good that other persons are bound to pursue or share, because the goodness is TIED TO and DEPENDENT UPON MY opinion.
              That’s what makes it subjective.

              God’s opinion that “Rape is bad” would no more translate into an objective basis about what we ought to do than my opinion liver and onions is bad implies you or anyone else will or ought to hold that proposition true.


              (I think morality is probably objective, but I just finished an extended conversation on that, which could never “end,” so I’m avoiding that for now).

              • Vaal
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

                Just to amend: “Facts that rest SOLELY upon the opinion of an individual is the very definition of “subjective.”

              • Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                I disagree, Vaal. Something that depends upon the individual evaluation of each subject is subjective. “What’s your favorite color?” is a subjective question, because the answer depends upon who you ask. “What is Drew Vogel’s favorite color?” is not a subjective question. The answer is “Blue”. It is an objective fact about the world that my favorite color is blue. No matter who you ask, and no matter what answers you get, the one and only correct answer is that my favorite color is blue. “Drew’s favorite color is blue” is an objectively true statement, because it’s made true by objective facts about whatever cognitive processes in my brain result in me giving the answer “blue” whenever I think about what my favorite color is.

                If God thinks that rape is wrong, that may just be God’s opinion, and therefore subjective. But that God thinks rape is wrong is an objective fact, and under divine command theory, it is that fact (and that fact alone) which makes rape wrong.

                I realize this is tricky. In law school, I had a really hard time understanding that the reasonable man standard is an objective standard. But it’s the same idea. Whatever subjective decision the “reasonable man” would make in a given situation is the objective standard against which the actions of the defendant will be judged.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              Divine command theory cannot be considered objective unless there is some well-defined, unambiguous, replicable procedure for discovering what the divine commands are. Clearly we are not in possession of such a procedure. Without it, divine command theorists are free to project their own subjective morality onto the divine commander, and nobody can contradict them.

              • Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                I disagree. You’re conflating separate questions. Divine command theory is entirely objective. However, since no one has any reliable means of knowing what God’s divine commands are (because there are none), then everyone is stuck with their own subjective opinion as to what they are. I think that’s basically what you mean, right? But DCT is still entirely objective. Moral propositions are objectively true or false according to what God commands, whether or not anyone actually knows what God commands.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                If the divine commands are objectively unknowable, then what sense does it make to say that any given moral proposition is objectively in agreement with them? Such propositions are not even wrong; they’re unfalsifiable.

              • Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                Yep, that’s a huge problem with DCT. But what I still don’t understand is how secular morality avoids that problem if it isn’t objective. If Joe says “Capital punishment is wrong,” and Jack says “Capital punishment is right,” how do we resolve this? If it’s simply a matter of opinion, then it’s just as unfalsifiable as DCT, isn’t it?

                But if morality is objective, then we at least have something to talk about. What are the consequences if each view, and which hypothetical world (with or without capital punishment) is more conducive to the overall well-being of conscious creatures? This isn’t an easy question to answer, but it has an answer in principle.

                We can even imagine a hypothetical set of facts to guide our analysis. If it’s the case that the mere threat of capital punishment deterred every crime, then it would be right for the death penalty to be the mandatory punishment for every crime. On the other hand, if the death penalty somehow triggered a massive wave of violent crime, then it would be wrong. We don’t live in either of those worlds, which makes the question harder. But at least we know where to look for guidance.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

                As I indicated in my earlier comment, we can certainly make statements about the efficacy of various moral claims in achieving some specific social good. Such statements are empirically verifiable and can be considered objectively true or false. But we should be careful not to confuse such empirical statements about the sociology of moral claims with the content of the claims themselves, which need not have any objective truth value.

            • Vaal
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink


              “If God thinks that rape is wrong, that may just be God’s opinion, and therefore subjective.”

              Exactly. This is the part in which we are answering “what is the nature of good or bad, or right and wrong?

              Could God’s opinion be “wrong” that rape is wrong? If so, that’s the other horn: there is some objective standard independent of God’s opinion. But we aren’t talking about that option for the dilemma. We are talking about the option in which whatever God commands is “good.” And in this case God couldn’t be wrong about the evil of rape: the evil of rape. The evil of rape IS his opinion. That is how rape gets it’s “wrongness.” You’ve no other option.

              And this makes it subjective – simply an expression of opinion or a subject’s desire or evaluation – in exactly the same way we call any other personal opinions “subjective.”

              The fact that God goes on to make the claim to us that rape is wrong, or to command us not to do it, is neither here nor there in terms of the basis for the wrongness of rape.

              Now, if you want to totally dissociate God having his belief or opinion about rape from his proclaiming it to be wrong…that is to say that God’s mere utterances MAKE something right or wrong, good or bad, and God need have no opinion or beliefs on the matter at all, then this is so arbitrary as to be impossible to compel anyone to think “rape is wrong” to be any sort of fact.
              It makes God irrational, and makes anyone irrational to make the leap from “God said it” to “therefore it is good.” You can call it “objective” all you want, but you can’t come up with an argument for why anyone ought to ACCEPT that God’s mere utterances devoid of all contact with beliefs or other facts, would give objective “oughtness” to his utterances.


              • Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                But Vaal, I’m not arguing that DCT is true, only that it is objective.

                Forget about God. Let’s go with Obama command theory. Under OCT, anything that Obama says is right is right by definition. “What Obama says” is objective. It’s an empirical fact, “out there”, about the world. Is same-sex marriage right or wrong? Let’s see:

                1. Has Obama said anything about same-sex marriage? This is an objective question. The answer is determined by facts about the world relating to whether or not Obama has discussed same-sex marriage.

                2. Has Obama said that SSM is right or wrong? Again, this is an objective question.

                According to OCT, same-sex marriage is right (although, until recently, it was wrong). None of this necessarily has anything to do with what Obama thinks. It’s only concerned with what Obama says, and what Obama says is entirely objective.

                Let me try once more to make this tricky distinction clearer. Opinions are subjective. Facts about a person’s opinions are objective. “Doctor Who is the best sci-fi show ever” is a subjective opinion. “Drew thinks Doctor Who is the best sci-fi show ever” is an objective fact.

              • Vaal
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink


                Are we talking about Divine Command Theory as it is actually understood normally, or your own version of Divine Command Theory?
                Because the DCT you describe is one in which the rightness of X concerns ONLY God’s utterances, and has nothing to do with God’s beliefs or reasons. If God’s commands had nothing to do with God’s beliefs, desires or any rational-making facts, then God’s utterances would be irrational, and we would be just as irrational to obey the commands.

                But the God of typical Divine Command Theory is a rational Being. The Christian explicitly or implicitly accepts that God makes commands “on the basis of reasons.” Those reasons can be simply “Because that is what God likes/values” or “because God is appealing to an external standard (less often)” or “because God’s Holy Good Nature compels these commands” etc. God’s utterances are not held to emerge from a total void. Whereas you want to paint DCT in which “good” and what we ought to do is SOLELY based on God’s utterances, and nothing else.

                So I can’t see bothering debating a Divine Command Theory that does not in fact represent what that theory typically entails.

                And, even if we went with your version of DCT, it would still of course fall on to the “arbitrariness” problem. (If there are no reasons behind someone’s prescription for an action, there are no reasons for that action…except reasons we may have from our own concerns, like concerns for avoiding punishment or whatever).


        • Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink


          I think the worry is supposed to be something like this.

          Normally, an objective truth is supposed to be one that can’t be changed by some person changing their opinion.

          But if DCT is true, then ethical facts can be changed by some person (God) changing His opinion.

          Therefore, ethics wouldn’t be objective. At least, that’s how I imagine the argument.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      how do you avoid the descent into relativism, so to speak.

      I don’t, and I don’t consider that a problem.

      If there is no objective basis for morality, how can we ever reasonably allege than any purported moral claim, no matter how ludicrous or cruel, is wrong

      Be defining morality in a way that seems good to us.

      There’s no objective basis for who wins a chess game, either. The rules are man-made. And yet we have no trouble determining who won a particular game.

      • Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        There is a completely objective basis for who wins a chess game. The fact that this basis is defined by man-made rules makes no difference. Either you’ve been checkmated or you haven’t, and that is determined by facts which are entirely mind-independent.

        • truthspeaker
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

          Exactly my point.

          • Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            Then I’m afraid I don’t understand your point.

            • Fastlane
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

              While truthspeaker can speak for hirself, I think I can clarify.

              The rules of chess are arbitrary…relative if you will. Google ‘chess variants’, and you will find many. However, once you begin playing a game by that particular set of rules, you have tacitly agreed that they are in play until the game is concluded.

              I think morality and ethics are the same, but fuzzier. Step one is acknowledging that they are almost as arbitrary as chess rules, or any boardgame rules, for that matter. Step two is the trickiest, IMO. Step two is decided when one is playing by ‘the rules’ or not, and when one feels that one’s own decision and morality trump the accepted rules. Even more tricky is trying to figure out when others are playing by the rules, and what they think the rules are (their personal morality). There are a lot of implicit assumptions in our daily interactions, regarding our operating morality, and 99.9% of the time, our limits aren’t challenged.

              There are no absolute morals, either from divine command theory, or from secular derivation. Maybe one needs to define what absolute means to agree on this. If you can say, you universally apply some moral rule, then it’s absolute, but I don’t think you could find one, without either putting lots of qualifiers on it, or being able to find at least a few exceptions.

              • Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

                Objective morality, as I understand it, requires neither absolute rules nor universal applicability. To claim that morality is objective is merely to say that moral propositions can be either true or false, and that they are made so by objective criteria. That doesn’t imply that every moral proposition will have a simple, universally applicable answer. “It’s wrong to lie” is itself neither true or false, because sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, depending upon the circumstances. But the circumstances it depends on are objective (the consequences of the particular lie under consideration in the applicable circumstances),

                Objective morality also doesn’t imply that there is or should widespread agreement on moral questions. The consequences of telling this particular lie under these circumstances will be necessarily speculative, which means that people will disagree about them, and that disagreement will run through to the ultimate question. But it is still the case that it is the objective consequences of the lie that determine whether it is right or wrong.

              • truthspeaker
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                I can speak for myself, but you did a much better job clarifying my point than I did!

                Please feel free to speak for me from now on.

            • truthspeaker
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

              That “objective” morality can still be man-made.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      One basis for saying a moral claim is wrong might be when different individuals or groups make completely contradictory moral claims.

      For example I don’t think there is an objective moral claim to Jerusalem. There are only contingent historical cultural claims that invest that land with special mystical properties. Yet two different groups of people seem prepared to fight to the death over it.

      Something is clearly wrong with the moral claims in conflict here, yet one would have trouble creating an objective solution that didn’t violate competing claims of morality.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I think much of the disagreement is over what the word “objective” means.

      In my view, there can be objective empirical facts about moral beliefs, such as “Belief B tends to promote some social good G in society S.” These are facts that can be independently verified by observers of any species or culture. This is what scientists usually mean when they talk about objective facts.

      But the existence of such facts does not imply that the belief B itself has any objective truth. And that’s the sense in which some of us deny the existence of objective moral facts. Moral claims are tools for achieving social ends, and we can objectively evaluate their effectiveness as such without mistaking the claims themselves for statements of objective fact about the world.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Some relativism is unavoidable. We avoid the descent into wholesale relativism because human nature (including human desires, innate moral intuitions, etc.) are fairly universal and reason and evidence applied to these built-in features can be universal.

      In any case, the religious are not free from relativism, they merely kid themselves that they are. Religions merely pretend to have an objective standard. In practice, what they have are texts or traditions and people who argue over how those apply those to specific moral claims. The result is that even within the same religion there is only very poor agreement on moral claims (e.g. I have some Christian friends who feel that Christianity teaches that you shouldn’t kill even to defend yourself, turn the other cheek and all that, and others who think Christians should be the first to sign up to go drop bombs on Islamists). I seriously doubt that the levels of agreement within a particular religion, that is within a group claiming to adhere to the same “objective” standard, are much better than the agreement between different groups.

      Believers will, of course, claim that the objective standard still exists, that because people don’t (or won’t) agree on what it is or how it applies to given situations doesn’t negate the fact that there is an objective standard. How is such an objective standard any benefit, though? The end result, the moral claims that people actually adopt, are fuzzily determined by some combination of intuition, reason, and a priori choice of authority figures. How is that any improvement, any less relative, than just some combination of intuition and reason? Sure, in that world view, some Platonic standard exists, but if we don’t reliably have access to this standard it may as well not exist.

      It is actually much worse because it *adds* relative things. Innate intuition + reason is always going to be there, but religion adds appeal to authority, and there are many who claim authority, and revelation. It is like the believer’s worst fears about atheistic relativism, with a layer of arbitrary relativism layered on. From the point of view of an atheist, this added layer is especially pernicious. From authority, or from some text, one can argue for things that neither our innate moral intuitions nor reason and evidence would support. For example, the positive merits of burning heretics, something that offends both our gut and our mind, but which pops out of a certain line of reasoning based on a fairy tale.

      You are right, though, that secular morality suffers from people’s (false) belief that it is less objective than religious morality. Should we pretend, like they do, to have an objective standard as a matter of PR, or should we try to break their illusion that they have an objective standard?

      • Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        But they’re not pretending. They do have an objective standard. “What use is it?” is a fair question, of course, because they have no means to resolve disputes. That’s the big weakness of divine command theory, and it means that religious morality ends up resembling relativist morality in practice. But I’m specifically interested in moral theory. And the divine command theory is entirely objective.

        What secular morality needs is an objective basis that allows disputes to be rationally evaluated, and that’s what we have in the Harris/Shermer view. Granted, it’s got drawbacks. But at least it provides a basis in principle for evaluating moral claims. And in certain specific cases, it can be extremely effective.

        My favorite example is corporal punishment. On my view of objective morality, corporal punishment is either right or wrong according to it’s consequences. It was once widely believed that effective childrearing required corporal punishment. Now we’ve got oodles of scientific data suggesting that corporal punishment is both ineffective and creates a risk of harming the emotional development of the child. As knowledge about corporal punishment spreads, support for corporal punishment falls.

        • gluonspring
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          They aren’t pretending, of course, they are merely deluded, which is different. But I know what you’re saying. If there were a God and you took morality to be whatever God wants us to do, that’s an objective standard. It’s just sort of bizarre to me make a virtue out of that. DCT is objective given it’s premises, but the premises are almost certainly false. Beyond even the question of resolving disputes, what are the merits of a purely hypothetical objectivity? I don’t see any.

          There is a hypothetical color theory based on the exact shades of red and green used by Santa that is completely objective. We may not know what those colors are, what with Santa being so hard to observe and all, but the colors are objective to the people who believe in Santa and that makes their color theory entirely objective. What? That’s how DCT really should sound to people. The fact that it doesn’t sound like is the essential problem.

          • Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

            I’m not arguing for the truth of divine command theory. Merely that it is objective. Objective morality makes sense to me. Moral propositions can be true or false, and the fact that they can be true or false is, it seems to me, the only reason to pay any attention to them at all. If a moral proposition can be true of false, then for any given moral proposition, I want to know if it is true or false, so that it can guide my behavior. If it’s just a matter of opinion, then I don’t really care.

            I care very much what other people think is right and wrong. But I don’t care at all what movies other people like. It seems to me that there is a real and important difference here that is completely overlooked by moral relativism. And I’m curious how atheists who don’t think morality is objective deal with that.

  3. Somite
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    I just don’t understand what is wrong with utilitarianism. Certainly we can use data and research to unambiguously cover most situations like health hazards, pollution, etc. Then spend more time agreeing on what to do when parties and claims appear of similar value.

    I think that in most cases it will be clear what to do notwithstanding outlier cases like pushing a heavy man of a bridge to stop a train.

    • eric
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      I think in a lot of cases we do exactly what you propose, but you are expecting an unrealistic level of agreement about “what to do.” Your process leads to the sort of social disagreements we already have.

      Health hazards are a great example: people can completely agree on the risk of cancer of agent A, and completely disagree about whether that risk is acceptable or not. “About 5 of every 10,000 people exposed to A (for x amount of time) will get cancer” is a data statement. “5 in 10,000? I’ll take that risk!” is a ‘what to do’ statement. So is “5 in 10,00? That’s horrible! ‘A’ should be banned from the entire country and no one allowed to use.”

      Its simply not the case that agreement on data statement leads to agreement on ‘what to do’ statements.

      • Somite
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        The point is that we need the objective data first to attempt to make a decision. This type of decision would never come from religious morality.

    • jay
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      It’s not that simple. Pollution is a byproduct of many human activities.. including ones that greatly improve the quality human life. The weights we apply to different priorities can vary significantly.

      • Somite
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        But that doesn’t mean it is impossible or that the variables should be quantified to then make a decision.

        • jay
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Sometimes yes, sometimes not.

          How much unemployment is tolerable in cutting back energy use, how much rise in food costs? How much would you curtail home heating/cooling, transportation, to protect a portion of the population that is highly susceptible to particulates? How many people need to be vulnerable before you pull the rug out from others?

          There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of factors. How you weigh them makes an enormous difference in the final equation.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink


      OK, argue from a utilitarian perspective why we shouldn’t replace all the lab rats and mice being used to study human disease, possible treatments, and so on, with humans. Rats and mice fail as treatment models more often than they succeed. Humanity as a whole, meaning billions of people for hundreds of thousands of years, would benefit greatly from setting aside a couple of million people we could experiment on with impunity. Utilitarianism almost demands it.

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        I meant “hundreds *or* thousands of years”. I wish I could say I’m such an optimist that I expect humans to be here hundreds of thousands of years form now, but I’m not. 😉

        The utilitarian view, that we should maybe sacrifice a lot of people for the benefit of even more people, offends a lot of people’s innate intuitions and is the main reason that utilitarianism doesn’t get more traction. Even for people whose intuition isn’t offended, self-interest kicks in… no one wants to be one of those sacrificial people, and we’d often rather do without whatever benefit that might bring than risk being one. Of course, this is where racism or other arbitrary othering comes in handy, because then you can kid yourself that the other doesn’t count, like African slaves, and sacrifice them for your (or even the greater) benefit without worry of becoming one of the victims.

        Kant’s principle that one should never treat another person merely as a means to an end is something that addresses this concern, and why Kantian ethics is more often used in bioethics than utilitarianism.

        • Somite
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          This is incorrect. We can decide that intentional increases in suffering are not justified for possible increases in well being.

          I don’t believe utilitarianism advocates for increases in well being at any cost. Specially suffering of others.

          • Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink


            Utilitarians will permit anything as long as it increases overall or total well-being. The reason is that utilitarianism is a consequentialist morality (plus an axiology that takes well-being to be a monistic good). This is how you will find it defined in any ethics course, plus here.

            So Gregory Kusnick and gluonspring are correct about its troubling implications. According to utilitarianism, if you can frame an innocent person to reduce overall crime, you ought to do it. That’s part of the reason that I and many other philosophers think utilitarianism is incorrect, and why the utilitarian approach to punishment that many hard determinists advocate is similarly problematic.

      • Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        That’s easy. The benefits of medical testing performed on humans must be balanced against the fact that everyone now lives in a world where they or their loved ones are liable to be carted off for involuntary medical testing. That would be bad, to say the least.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

          Nevertheless, utilitarianism requires us to quantify both the benefit and the harm and weigh them against each other. The unavoidable implication is that there is no harm that cannot be justified if the benefit is large enough. Utilitarianism is the “shut up and calculate” approach to ethics.

          • Somite
            Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Utilitarianism does not make such claim. We can decide that some harms are never justified. All utilitarianism advocates is fact based decision to increase well being when possible.

            • gluonspring
              Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

              We can decide anything we wish, of course!

              We can amend the moral philosophy commonly called utilitarianism to include some principles like you cite, that it’s not OK to intentionally increase suffering for a few to benefit the many, and that’s probably a really good thing to do if you want to adopt something related to utilitarianism. This amended philosophy should probably be called something else, neo-utilitarianism or something, because “utilitarianism” is already taken and doesn’t include that principle by default.

              I think, in any case, that you will likely find that a few simple amendments don’t clear it all up. Ethics is fiendishly difficult, largely because an ethical system must satisfy interests that are both legitimate and intrinsically at odds and also because, to be accepted, it must not too seriously offend semi-innate ethical intuitions which are, unfortunately, inconsistent.

              • gluonspring
                Posted February 22, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

                ack! won’t not don’t

  4. truthspeaker
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Some of us already did, a couple hundred years ago.

    Did the Enlightenment never happen for some people?

  5. gbjames
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink


  6. francis
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    The teachings of Confucius, (600 years before Yeshua) says basically the same thing regarding ethical behavior. No religion there. Makes you wonder.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      With my Enlightenment comment I implied they were only 200 years out of date, but as you correctly pointed out, it’s more like 2500 years.

  7. Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Interesting stuff.

    On particularism: I’ve actually defended particular myself. I think one response to your worry about adjudication is that we face the same problem in generalist ethical theories. Smith thinks we ought to promote overall happiness; Jones thinks that we shouldn’t when that would involve rights violations; and so on. We try to adjudicate those, and so I’m not sure why that can’t be extended to particularism. (We can also look into the sources of people’s particular judgments, and critique those; maybe some come from bias, etc.)

    On gut reactions: A third alternative (to evolution and secular indoctrination) is that people are using their intellect or reason or intuition to discover objective (again, in the above sense) ethical facts. Again, we lack the space here to get into that in detail, but since it’s a widely-accepted alternative, it shouldn’t be ignored.

  8. Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    If Christians want to claim that their morality or ethics comes from God, I think we might agree.

    Just not to the idea that it was their God who developed the whole ethics thing. More like the Egyptian Ma’at or Dike, the Greek goddess of moral justice.

    Honesty is an ethical trait – takes honesty to admit that the Egyptian and Greek versions of the Golden Rule preceded the New Testament by quite a fair margin.

  9. eric
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    1. Personally I think some folk ground their morality in religion for the same reason they want to believe the bible or some other creed is inspired or perfect: uncertainty gives them the willies. Its psychologically uncomfortable.

    Science is uncertain, and you see a lot of religious people pointing that out as if its a flaw. I bet the exact same reasoning is going on in their heads about morality: secular ethics has the fatal flaw of being fundamentally uncertain. Religion may be uncertain in practice, but hypothetically, its possible for relevation to be perfect. The attitude seems to be “better to use a system that could be perfect, hypothetically or in principle, than to use some system which can’t be perfect even in principle…even if the latter is currently outperforming the former.”

    2. The particularist approach seems naive to me. It sounds an awful lot like what both hard core liberals and hard core conservatives often say, which goes something like this: “my opinion is the only rational outcome if you know all the facts. No ratinal person who knew everything about what was going on would disagree with me. You disagree. Therefore, you must be ignorant of the situation, or irrational.”
    IMO it simply isn’t true that giving rational people complete information about a situation will result in political policy agreement. Likewise, it simply isn’t true that giving normal (decently ethical) people complete information about a situation will automatically result in moral or ethical agreement.

  10. Jim Johnson
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    “…neither …has had any traction with religious people, who continue to assert that their morality is grounded in religion.”

    Not unexpected. Once a person chooses to believe a religion implicitly, “no matter what” (faith), then the religion has only to state that it is the source of all morality and the person must then reject all other sources of morality or reject faith in the religion itself.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    And that is the feeling many of us have that morality is largely innate—our moral judgments are often gut reactions, based on some inner feeling that we simply know what is right.

    If by innate you mean predisposed by behaviour arising from evolutionary processes, plus learned behaviours when we were very young, plus taught behaviours when we were older, all assimilated, and then coloured by our environment, yes. Because all these influences are rarely open to introspection the god struck attribute their own gut feelings to a Generalised Boss, or “god”. God free people, similarly insulated from their formative experiences, attribute their own gut feelings to the Generalised Other, or “society”.

    Which explains why both god struck and god free morals can change over time as the Generalised Boss or the Generalised Other also changes.

  12. Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    “…bulwark of their *morality*”, probably?

  13. jay
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I think this is the core point of Jon Haidt’s book (Jerry, as an evolutionary biologist, I think you were too distracted by his flirtation with group selection). Deep down, cross culturally, our feelings about morality, while varying in details, are visceral more than logical.

    Logical appeals, indeed endeavoring to apply strict logic to conclusions tend to be unsatisfactory to many, because ultimately our ethical sense is driven by instinct. We can modify and inform it, but we need to recognize the underlying drive (just as with sex).

    Of course we CAN do that from a secular basis, but I think (and you seem to as well) that many secularists try to reduce it to a logical exercise.

    I’ve used this example before: In our email apps, there is a method for developing spam rules. Each time we get a spam, we can create a rule that blocks it. In the long run we get lots of rules, not all effective, some spam gets through, some valid mail gets blocked, some rules flat out contradict other rules. But the system more or less works.

    Same with our evolutionary developed moral sense. Underneath it all, it is NOT logical. We have a hodgepodge of behaviors that more or less work but if you follow any one of them far enough, you hit logical inconsistency.

    • Gluon Spring
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      This is one of the things makes ethics such a difficult topic, even though many people have the gut feeling that it ought to be easy. To be accepted, any ethical system has to comport with a good chunk of our innate (or nearly so) intuitions, but since those intuitions are neither consistent nor total in their scope, any concise set of ethical principles is going to clash with our intuitions, and perhaps sooner rather than later.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I think ultimately the root of morality is our sense of empathy with other people’s feelings, so call me a semi-particularist. Aristotelian “virtue ethics” in general unites passion with morality fairly well, even more broadly than the piece above indicates.

    I think that the secular morality which emerged during the era of the Enlightenment (the 18th century) does indeed have an overly impersonal nature to it, but that does not mean that secularists are stuck with it. Just because Aristotelian thinking dominated Catholic thought for a long time doesn’t mean secularists can’t subscribe to a modified version of it. (Ayn Rand did.)

    Finally, not only do I think ethics is rooted in our capacity for empathy, I think it is a misfiring of this capacity that causes people to believe in nature-spirits and various forms of supernaturalism. So our capacity for empathy needs to become well-directed by…I guess reason.

  15. Vaal
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I remember an excellent presentation by a Professor or Philosopher in one of the Beyond Belief conference videos concerning this very subject. He made to my mind a very cogent case for why religion so easily adheres in our brains. The nutshell version being that the religious stories, with Gods, are narratives that seem to tie together the world of facts and values just as we want them. In the Christian story for instance, values – love, wisdom, morals – are exemplified in God and Jesus and simultaneously become “facts” about the nature of moral reality, what we ought to do etc.

    I’m sure I’m mangling it somewhat. I wish I could remember the details of who presented it and when. (Sorry).


  16. Gluon Spring
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    It’s been awhile, and I was never an expert, but from what I recall the bit of Kantian ethics I found more useful was the notion that rational entities are ends in themselves, with the result that it is unethical to treat any person as a “mere means to an end”. They can be means to an end, of course, my grocer is a means to my end of obtaining bread, but not mere means to an end.

  17. RFW
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    “There’s something in religious tradition that helps people be ethical. But it isn’t actually their belief in God.”

    I call b.s. to that assertion. Self-styled religious types seem to fall into two camps: one, those who are actively evil; and two, those who are hypocritical, who give lip service to their faith’s ethical mandates, but in every day life are no better than anyone else.

    A more accurate summary is that religious tradition generally provides a smokescreen to hide unethical behavior.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted February 24, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      I was tempted rather to quibble with Jerry’s assertion that “every person considers themselves wise, virtuous, and able to judge well”. Some people who’ve fallen badly in life acknowledge that they made dumb, bad decisions. Plenty of people have been addicts, criminals, or failures in their profession, and not all of them pretend otherwise.

      In principle, wisdom and virtue should be hard to fake in a sufficiently small and closed community, but few of those exist even among the hardcore religious. Ethics is nice in theory, but a combination of decisiveness and knowing where the bodies are buried has probably always been more effective than actual virtue.

  18. Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I guess I don’t see the primacy of emotion in religious moral systems as a feature.

    My argument wouldn’t be that we have to find a place for emotion in secular moral systems, it would be to show that emotion is a rotten way to justify an action.

    But this is not to say we shouldn’t be emotional. Indeed, how could we really avoid it? I’m willing to be Kant and Hume experienced plenty of emotions. I don’t see a utilitarian justification for an action as exclusive of an emotional one. It’s just that the emotional one is superfluous, or at least superficial.

    But hey, if doing the greatest good for the greatest number makes you feel good, too, well great! No secular system says that can’t be part of the experience of acting morally.

  19. ARJ
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    My impression from discussions with faith-minded people is that relying on religion for moral guidance is easier than trying to think through a situation. Religion offers, or seems to offer,simple black and white answers that reinforce previously held views and allow inconvient facts and messy grey areas to be ignored. It is an easy out that reduces anxiety and allows the individual to feel he/she has met any responsibility with little mental energy or threat to beliefs.

    • Posted February 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      I think, as another commenter pointed out, that many theists operate wrt morality largely on current consensus and instinct, as we all do.

      To the extent that their religion actively informs their moral inclinations and behaviors, I’d say your explanation is much more accurate than Jollimore’s. Or at least your explanation plays a bigger role. Why do many theists feel emotional appeals are sufficient to justify an action? Because emotional appeals are easy to make! They can’t be bothered to thoroughly examine the situation at hand and find better justifications.

  20. sailor1031
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    This isn’t difficult. We have a secular system of ethical behaviour – it’s called criminal and civil law. Law is the reason most people, whether religious or not, more or less behave themselves. We see that good christians, like Ken Lay for instance, are no more ethical than others when they think they can get away with their crimes.

  21. Roo
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad you posted this, it captures something that’s been rattling around the back of my mind that I haven’t been able to put to words quite this well. You’re pretty awesome Jerry. In fact, I’m considering becoming a stalker, but not in a creepy or threatening way. I’ll clearly identify myself with a bright red, reflective jacket that reads “Stalker” in big letters, and stay back ten feet at all times unless you need a hand, and then you can be like “Hey there, stalker, will you hold my latte and then back up ten feet?”

    I do think cultivating certain emotions is a big part of many religious practices. I can really only speak, personally, for Christianity, and certainly not for every church. But yes, in my experience you are kindly hammered over the head every week with the importance of love and virtue. Do you love others, are you serving others, do you have a grudge against anyone, is there anyone you haven’t forgiven? How could you be doing better? Let’s think about love, pray about love, reflect on the love of Jesus. Etc. I dated an evangelical Christian at one point and found out that this upbringing also, inevitably, involves youth camp where you learn the value of service and humility by washing each other’s feet. That kind of eeked me out, but apparently it’s a “nod, laugh, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that!'” thing if you bring it up to a lot of evangelical Christians.

    Included in this package is a lot of divisive nonsense, of course. I’m not emphasizing that here because it’s not the point of this comment, but I do think it should be emphasized when harmful. Just making that clear. I do think that if religion was pure indoctrination with no functional value, though, it would have gone the way of old wive’s tales a long time ago. Better to understand what in it works for people and why, and reduplicate elsewhere. Which, surely, science is in a position to do when it comes to developing pro-social emotions.

    I do think these emotions are important for morality, for most people, at least. Most of us don’t rely on moral theory when getting through the day. That coworker was a real jerk to me; I’m in a rush but why does my neighbor look so sad; that kid looks lost; I’m in a meeting with someone that I really disagree with. We probably have hundreds of little moments of interaction every day that are very much influenced by levels of compassion and empathy but not by moral theory (unless said theory was so important that you had internalized it and could really pull from it intuitively, without thinking.) These are ‘ethical’ decisions in some sense, so I see the author’s point there. On the other hand, major decisions require reflection, thoughtfulness, and standards of some sort, in addition to empathy and compassion as a driving force.

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I liked Jollimore’s piece too, despite raising my hackles by relying on such infamous sources like Aristoteles and Tenzin Gyatso. He formulates the problems of, say, utilitarism well.

    But I too think his version of particularism isn’t feasible. His “wisdom” and “virtuosity” cries out for elitism, but as opposed to science (say) there is no external measure, no proxies, available to judge these proposed qualities.

    OT, but this was poised for a smash down:

    philosophers; having disagreements with other philosophers is their job.

    What a splendid confession from a philosopher on how philosophy is not about empirical matters, at all.

    Game, set and match.

  23. Brian Vroman
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    There are an awful lot of comments here, and I don’t think I missed any, but if someone has already said this, my apologies. I have always liked the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who argued that the beginning of ethics is simply the ability to commiserate. He used the following example: imagine we see a child about to fall into a well. Would we come to the child’s aid? Of course we would! And what would be our motivation? Would it be to ingratiate ourselves with the child’s parents, or in a modern age to get our name in the local newspaper? No, it would just be because we could not stand to see the child suffer when it is in our power to prevent such suffering.

    Notice that no divinity is required here — this ability to commiserate can certainly be explained in completely naturalistic terms based on the evolution of intelligent social creatures. Of course, it is true that some humans — psychopaths and others — lack the ability to commiserate, but they are the exception to prove the rule.

    Obviously, ethics is a complex field, and there is a lot more to be discussed, but maybe this can be one starting point.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 23, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad I re-read. At first I thought you said “a lot of awful comments”.

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