Debate: Moral Skepticism Versus Moral Objectivism
JacobTheMouse Sasha's

Nov. 1, 2015

Moral Skepticism and Moral Objectivism
Sasha's Opening Statement

I have invited Bill Orton to a debate about moral skepticism and moral objectivism. He has kindly accepted my invitation!

I will take the moral skeptic position. We'll have three statements each, taking turns, me first, then we'll let everyone ask questions, make comments, challenge us, etc., (hopefully everyone will ask lots of questions,) and then we'll both make a closing statement, with him getting the last word.


Consider the following case of a moral disagreement:

A culture called the Hopi once existed in which children would catch "pet" birds, and play with them so roughly that they would basically torment them until they died. Many people would call this behavior "wrong". The adults among the Hopi did not. They had no problem with their children's behavior. [1] Why the difference?

I will propose five, non-jointly-exhaustive possible hypotheses:

Semantic: They actually agreed on all the facts available, but they described them differently, thus giving the appearance of a substantive disagreement where in fact they merely used moral terminology differently.

Naturalist: They had different beliefs about the state of the world, they disagreed about something empirical, objective, and demonstrable. At least one side held a false moral belief, which in theory one could demonstrate the falsehood of empirically, the way one could demonstrate the temperature of a glass of water by tasting it or using a thermometer.

Non-Naturalist: They had a disagreement about facts, as in the naturalist hypothesis, but these facts had a non-natural nature. The idea that people have a faculty of moral intuition, which grants them access to moral truths without the need for demonstrating their truth through empirical evidence, comes under this heading. [2]

Subjective: The people belonging to the different cultures had different attitudes towards the behavior, or felt different ways towards it. They used "right" and "wrong" to refer, in some way, to the different ways they felt. They disagreed over a subjective quality, the way people might like different paintings, computer games, or flavors of icecream.

Projective: They felt different ways about the children's actions, and their emotions gave them the impression that some sort of real, objective qualities existed and applied to the observed acts, but in fact no such objective qualities existed or applied. Their emotions served as a lense of sorts through which they saw the world, and this induced in them an illusion of "right" and "wrong".

Bill may object to my terminology, and, if he does, I will likely not mind using different names for the different postulations. I trust people understand roughly what I mean, in any case, and I of course want to discuss the ideas, rather than just the words. I will defend the "projective hypothesis". But before I begin my defense, I want to explain more specifically what I intend to provide evidence for, and what sort of evidence I would expect of a moralist.

The Nature of Knowledge

Imagine a game in which you and I both have maps, and we try to track the locations of our friends using them. We each have a key on our map, describing what, (or whom,) particular symbols represent. We also change the location of different symbols whenever we find evidence that leads us to think a friend of ours has changed their own location.

For us to use our maps to demonstrate our knowledge of our friends' locations, we have to do a few things. First, we have to have an understandable key, we have to have the ability to determine whom we intend to represent using each of our symbols. Second, we have to sync up our symbols with the actual locations of our friends.

Third, if we want knowledge of our friends' locations, I think most people would intuitively say we need to do more than guess our friends' locations correctly. We also need to justify ourselves, or at least have the ability to.

Fourth, what if I see my friend Kjadi out the window, but somehow mistake him for Emile? Thus, I make a mark on my map indicating that Emile currently stands somewhere outside in that general area. By coincidence, Emile has, in fact, also walked into that general area, making my map accurate, but I have not actually seem him yet. (Perhaps a tree stands in the way.) I have an accurate map, plus evidence justifying my map-drawing decisions, but, in fact, I have still only gotten the right answer through coincidence. I think most people would say, intuitively, that I still don't know Emile's location in this case. I would like to use this to suggest that, for my believe to count as knowledge, Emile's location, the fact I hold a belief about, has to somehow cause me to hold the belief. I would have to actually detect Emile's location, and base my map on that evidence, for my map to represent knowledge. So beliefs that count as knowledge not only sync up with the real objects and qualities the beliefs represent, the state of those objects and qualities has to play a part in causing people to believe that those objects and qualities have the states they do.

Let me now return to the 5 hypotheses I listed and add some details.

Semantic: A) Moralists use different symbols to symbolize different things. B) They can both accurately model the real world, they just model it using a different symbolization scheme. C) Their disagreement evaporates upon translation from one scheme to another.

Naturalist and Non-Naturalist: A) Moralists believe in objective moral qualities, which apply regardless of their emotions or other internal states. B) Such qualities actually do exist, and they can use their moral concepts to accurately model aspects of the real world. C) Their disagreement comes from one or more of them holding false beliefs, or failing to rationally apprehend all the implications of the facts in question. D) The Naturalist hypothesis claims that moral qualities consist of natural qualities of the world, and that one can demonstrate moral truths through empirical evidence. The Non- Naturalist hypothesis claims that one can not demonstrate moral truths purely through empirical evidence, because moral qualities consist of non-natural qualities.

Subjective: Moralists use moral concepts to refer to subjective qualities, and they know that they do this. A) They believe in subjective moral qualities, they believe that the acts in question have the quality of producing some state in them, the subject, similar to how one might say a painting produces a state of appreciation or awe in oneself. B) Their beliefs either do or, at least, can, sync up with the facts. The children's bird-torturing actions do, in fact, produce certain emotions, (or other states,) in them. Thus they can use their moral concepts to correctly model real qualities. C) The disagreement arises from their different attitudes.

Projective: A) They believe in objective moral qualities. (Their map's key says their symbols refer to objective qualities, states of the actions or objects in question.) B) No such qualities actually exist. Their impression that they do comes from their own internal states, their own attitudes or emotions. Some internal process makes things seem to have these objective qualities, even though they really don't. Thus, their symbols sync up with their attitudes or emotional reactions, some causal relationship exists here between their feeling certain emotions, and their holding their moral beliefs. C) Their disagreement comes, ultimately, from their different attitudes towards the children's actions, or their different emotional reactions, or something intimately related to their attitudes or emotional reactions.

I will argue for the projective hypothesis by isolating certain predictions that follow from each hypothesis, contrasting the predictions of the projective hypothesis and other hypotheses, and presenting evidence from moral psychology that indicates the projective hypothesis can better explain the available data than the other hypotheses. Thus, my argument takes the form of inference to the best explanation.

Semantic Disputes

I will argue, briefly, against the semantic hypothesis by simply pointing out that people argue about morality all the time, and they don't seem to regard their disputes as entirely semantic. I would have expected moral philosophers to have figured it out by now if their disputes reduced to nothing more than semantic arguments.

The philosopher who did the work with the Hopi, referred to above, did his work in an attempt to find some difference between the empirical, non-moral beliefs of the Hopi and of those who disagreed with them. He determined that he could find no such empirical, non-moral disagreement, and decided his work had relativistic implications. (For example, the Hopi did believe the birds could suffer and feel pain.) If the dispute had reduced to semantics, I would have expected him to have noticed.

This also seems to leave us with a puzzle for naturalists. If the bird-torment dispute really arose from failure on someone's part to rationally apprehend some bit of empirical evidence, what bit of empirical evidence did the someone in question fail to rationally apprehend? If people can agree on all the empirical facts, but disagree about moral claims, then this seems to place moral claims outside the realm of empirical facts.

This seems like a troubling situation for moral naturalists, right off the bat. Subjectivists and projectivists can explain the dispute easily by pointing out the different attitudes held by the different disputants. But naturalists have a teaspoon or so of explaining to do.


I confess that I will not attempt to make as strong a case against subjectivism as I will against naturalism and non-naturalism. I will not because my argument against subjectivism basically relies on

the idea that people generally believe in objective moral qualities, rather than subjective ones. This argument runs into difficulties.

First, I assume that subjectivists would predict that moralists believe in subjective moral properties, while projectivists would predict that moralists believe in objective ones. Subjectivists could answer that, actually, moralists do often believe in objective morality, but they hold a mistaken belief in this regard, because moral qualities have a subjective rather than an objective nature. To this, I respond that it seems to me that in the case of people who believe in objective morality, subjectivists and I actually agree, we both believe that the moralists in question believe in qualities that probably do not exist.

Second, the folk seem to have an amorphous concept of "morality", and the same people sometimes switch back and forth between thinking of morality as objective, and thinking of it as subjective, under different circumstances. This means that, in fact, in some cases subjectivism, as I have presented it, more accurately fits the evidence than projectivism, while at other times projectivism fits better.

In some cases, some people may indeed use their moral concepts to describe qualities that I also believe in. If someone told me, for example, that they just used "wrong" to describe anything that induced a feeling of guilt in them, I would probably become a moral realist in the sense that I would probably accept that some actions they could take would, indeed, probably make them feel guilty. I would object that I don't think most people use the word that way, but, in my opinion, people can use words to mean whatever they wish, words don't have any sort of "inherent" meaning built into them. So, based on such a person's meaning of “wrong”, I would believe in wrongness, while I would lack a belief in wrongness based on other meanings.

Still, I will present some evidence regarding how people think in this regard.

Most moral nihilists, (or moral skeptics or amoralists,) argue against the existence of categorical imperatives, while accepting the existence of hypothetical imperatives. They reject morality because they believe that moral claims necessarily describe these categorical imperatives. [3]

Hypothetical imperatives, in this context, involve if-then statements. For example, I could claim that if you want a cake, you “should” bake a cake. These sorts of claims we can reduce to claims about cause and effect, and they generally depend on people's desires or interests for their power to give a person a reason to act.

Categorical imperatives, in this context, involve principles that give us reasons to act regardless of our interests or desires. For example, I can keep the "You should bake a cake" conclusion from the last sentence, while eliminating the if clause, and turn it into a categorical imperative.

Categorical imperatives seem to capture the folk concept of morality better than hypothetical imperatives because people usually draw a distinction between moral rules and other kinds of rules based on the thought that moral rules do not depend on any authority, do not vary from culture to culture, and do not depend upon people's preferences.

One can manipulate people's answers on tests of whether they perceive morals as universal, and objective, in these ways. One paper by Linda Skitka [4] illustrates this. In one experiment, subjects came up with their own examples of claims about science, morality, and people's likes and dislikes. She reported that subjects rated scientific and moral claims “as equally objectively true and universal, and [moral claims] as more objectively true and universal than likes/dislikes.” (page 9)

She also reported, however, that the researchers found a correlation between stronger moral convictions and higher ratings of objectivity and universality, meaning people thought of different moral beliefs as more or less objective and universally applicable than others. This calls into question whether people always think of moral qualities as objective.

Another study provides further reason to doubt folk moral objectivism. In it, researchers attempted to test the effects of people's metaethical beliefs on their behaviors by asking one group if they agreed that morality was objective, and asking another group if they agreed that it was relative, and then asking them to donate to a particular cause. [5]

I would like to go ahead and quote a significant portion of this study, to make clear what they did:

“In the realism condition, the canvasser asked the participant a leading question to prime a belief in moral realism: 'Do you agree that some things are just morally right or wrong, good or bad, wherever you happen to be from in the world?' In the antirealism condition, the canvasser asked: 'Do you agree that our morals and values are shaped by our culture and upbringing, so there are no absolute right answers to any moral questions?' The canvasser asked for a donation from a total of 47 control participants, 46 realism participants, and 45 antirealism participants.

...[B]oth questions were designed to highlight the key components of both realism and antirealism views — but, importantly, in uncontroversial terms. This approach allowed us to capitalize on the possibility that laypeople endorse certain aspects of both realism and antirealism and, more generally, hold somewhat flexible, context dependent meta-ethical views; other approaches may be better suited to measure individual differences in people's meta-ethical views at baseline. Thus, as expected, participants, with one exception, responded affirmatively.” (page 303) [5]

One could question the methodology of their study. However, while other explanations abound, the fact that almost all of the participants willingly agreed with the view proposed by the canvaser, regardless of whether that implied objectivism or subjectivism, does seem to me to give evidence that few people have any sort of hard opinion on whether or not moral concepts describe objective or subjective qualities.

I don't think we have found great evidence that people generally think of them as subjective, so if the subjective hypothesis requires this sort of evidence, then it still runs into trouble. But I will make a softer claim about subjectivism than saying it definitely fails. I think, based on the evidence presented, people's moral concepts usually seem to either have a categorical character, or such an amorphous character that I wouldn't understand well enough what in the real world they intended to describe to determine the truth or falsehood of their claims.

A few people, perhaps those who think of themselves formally as moral subjectivists, may hold coherent moral concepts describing subjective properties. For them, their concepts may, possibly, accurately represent some aspects of the real world. I do not deny this possibility. I merely argue that, for the majority of people, projectivism usually describes their moral psychology better than subjectivism.

Naturalism and Non-Naturalism

On to my argument against the existence of objective moral qualities, and my discussion of why people have the sense that they exist even though, in my opinion, they probably do not.

I claim that the moral realist bears, not merely a burden of proof, but also a burden of coherence. By a “burden of coherence”, I mean that they have to explain the content of their map's key, they have to explain what in the real world they wish to describe using the concepts they employ.

Moral skeptics generally take it that moralists try to use their moral concepts to describe categorical imperatives, rules about behavior that bind all rational beings regardless of their interests, desires, and goals. Not all moral realists accept this characterization of their views, but in the cases where they reject it, I do not understand what they do want to use moral concepts to describe. [6] Thus, in a debate over some other conception of morality, I must simply rely on my moralist conversation partners to explain what they believe in, and why.

In the case of categorical imperatives, I think believers run quickly into trouble. If one explains that one uses the idea of “reasons to take a course of action” to describe cases where, for instance, one must bake a cake in order to get one, then one must content oneself with only having provided someone with a reason to bake a cake given that they desire a cake. If people have different desires, then this account of reasons will produce different appropriate courses of action for people with different desires. It will produce hypothetical imperatives, not categorical ones.

I only see a couple ways out of moral relativism here. One can argue that everyone, (at least everyone bound by morality,) has, at root, the same ultimate desires, interests, etc., and thus that their common interests or desires lead them to a common course of action. Or, one can argue that a different sort of reason giving entities exist, most probably some sort of non-natural entities that "just give" people reasons to act, in some mysterious way.

To the idea that everyone has common interests and/or desires, I think I can produce many different counterexamples. The Hopi provide one such case. The Hopi children wanted to torment their "pet" birds, they apparently gained some sort of satisfaction, enjoyment, or pleasure out of the act. The Hopi, in general, seemed to have different attitudes towards the actions of their children from others, attitudes which led to different desires and interests.

Relativity of interests and desires leads to relativity of reasons. One could plausibly argue that, if the Hopi wanted to not cause the birds to suffer, they ought not have tortured the birds. But, given that they had no such desire, no obvious way to argue that they ought to have not tortured the birds presents itself, other than to fall back on a belief in non-natural moral truths, existing independently from the natural, empirically explorable world.

One could argue that these non-natural moral qualities exist based on the idea that it seems to us like they do. It seems to us that the Hopi children act wrongly, or at least it seems this way to some of us. I think projectivism can explain this impression without postulating the existence of any real moral qualities, and, thus, I think occam's razor renders the existence of these moral qualities less probable than their existence.

Evidence for this projective hypothesis will now follow:

Emotions seem necessary for morality:

The ability to make normal moral judgments seems to require certain emotional capacities. Mere intelligence does not suffice. Some evidence for this comes from research on psychopathology. Quoting a review of the research by Jesse J. Prinz:

“[Psychopaths] are perfectly intelligent and articulate. They seem to comprehend moral values, but they are utterly indifferent to them. They engage in chronic antisocial behavior, from lying and stealing to torturing and killing, and they commit these crimes without emotional cost. When psychopathic killers hears words pertaining to violence, they do not have a normal emotional response... They also show little empathy, guilt, shame, or remorse...

Psychopaths lack moral emotions, but they are also alarmingly deficient in non-moral emotions. Psychopaths show deficits in fear, as evidence by a diminished capacity for electric shock conditioning and distress-induced increases in startle response... They also show a deficit in sadness. Cleckley (1941) discusses a teenage psychopath who showed only superficial concern when her pet dog was run over by a car, (p. 72), and he also describes a man who shows no sorrow after murdering his mother and numerous others without provocation (p. 266). It has also been shown that psychopaths have difficulty recognizing facial and vocal expressions of sadness.” (pages 42-45) [7]

Thus psychopaths lack certain moral and non-moral emotions. They also lack an ability to distinguish between moral rules and social conventions. Quoting Prinz again:

“Psychopaths seem to comprehend morality, but they really don't. ... Blair (1995) demonstrates that psychopaths fail to grasp the moral/conventional distinction... [He] asked criminals who had been diagnosed as psychopaths to consider various scenarios in which rules had been violated. Some... were moral and some were conventional, but the psychopaths were not alerted to this fact. They were simply asked to rate the wrongness and seriousness of the violations, and to justify their answers. They were also asked whether the described behavior would have been wrong if an authority had allowed it. The results were striking. Psychopaths did not treat moral and conventional wrongs significantly differently. Unlike a control group of non-psychopathic criminals, they tended to ignore victim's welfare when justifying their answers about moral wrongs.” (pages 43-44, emphasis in original) [7]

Yet, Prinz also says, “psychopaths generally have intelligence quotients within the normal range.” (page 46)

This all seems to indicate that psychopaths lack normal moral concepts, specifically lacking an ability to distinguish between conventions and moral rules, because of their emotional deficiencies, rather than because of a lack of intelligence. I think this provides evidence against the naturalist and non-naturalist hypotheses. Naturalism and non-naturalism, as I understand them, predict that people could understand moral concepts and ascertain moral truths through application of reasoning capabilities to empirical evidence. But normal reasoning capabilities, combined with access to empirical evidence, do not suffice to give people the ability to understand morality in the way most moralists understand it.

In contrast, the subjective and projective hypotheses both fit this evidence nicely. A subjectivist who believes that moral qualities partially consist of internal, emotional states will, of course, predict that those without the internal, emotional states in question will lack ordinary moral experiences and, thus, be unable to understand normal moral concepts. A projectivist who believes that one's emotions give one an illusion that real, objective, moral properties exist, will, also, predict that those without the

required emotions will not experience the illusion. One can not project emotions onto the world if one lacks the emotions to project.

Emotions seem sufficient for morality:

Prinz reviews one study where researchers asked people about their opinions on a story regarding two adults, a brother and sister, who engaged in consensual sexual intercourse, using two forms of contraception, keeping their actions a secret, and enjoying the experience. People generally judged the siblings as having done something wrong, but couldn't explain why. They would attempt explanations regarding, for instance, possible birth defects, or social backlash, or trauma on the part of the participants, and the researchers would point out why their argument failed for reasons given in the story. While they generally admitted that the counter-arguments worked, most subjects fell back on emotional expressions. Quoting Prinz:

“[Only] 17 percent changed their initial moral judgments. The others typically bottomed out in unsupported declarations and emotional exclamations. Incest is nasty! Incest is just wrong: it's gross! Reasons fell by the wayside, but moral convictions and moral emotions were recalcitrant.” (page 30) [7]

Thus, people do not appear to require any conscious reasons justifying their moral claims, their emotions suffice to cause them to make the moral judgments.

Naturalists and non-naturalists can explain this by appealing to the idea that emotions bias people's moral judgments, while still not forming their basis in all cases. But Subjectivism and Projectivism still seem to better explain the evidence here.

If people's emotions biased their moral judgments, then it would indeed make sense for them to make initial moral judgments based on their emotions. But in this experiment, subjects were given plenty of time to reflect on the story in question, and asked to think about the story and provide reasoned justifications for their moral claims. A minority of subjects eventually changed their initial moral judgments after this process of reflection, but most held onto their initial claims.

Moral naturalists here would have to argue that most people simply failed to base their moral judgments on reason and evidence in this particular case, while still claiming that reasoning about empirical evidence could, in theory, lead one to a correct judgment about this scenario, (whatever judgment any particular moral realist might regard as correct here.) Or, if they don't think a correct moral judgment one way or the other exists for this particular scenario, then they would still, at least, have to argue that reasoning about empirical evidence would lead to correct judgments in some scenarios.

For subjectivists and projectivists, the way people made judgments in this experiment seem like straight-forward examples of how people make moral judgments in general. Moral realists, in contrast, would have to think of this as a failure to apply correct methodology to a moral question. If moral realists think people usually fail to come to moral conclusions using reason and evidence, then they would have to regard most people as not having moral knowledge in a great number of cases, while they themselves, presumably, have moral knowledge that most others lack. Subjectivists and Projectivists would predict results similar to those in this study in most cases, moral realists would only predict these results if they also expect the study subjects to systematically use erroneous means to produce their judgments. Moral realists must add to their theory an additional postulation to the effect

that only a special minority of individuals will have the reasoning capabilities, (or, perhaps, the philosophical training or strength of will,) necessary to come to correct conclusions about moral questions. They have to regard correct moral reasoning as the exception, and correct moral reasoners as the odd ones out, while treating unfounded and unjustified moral reasoning as normal. This seems a little ad hoc. Subjectivists and projectivists can explain the results much more directly.

Emotions cause changes in moral judgments:

Manipulation of people's emotions and moods can change the moral judgments they make towards other people.

Prinz reviews various studies about this in his book The Emotional Construction of Morals, and I highly recommend reading through it. (I myself am about a third of the way through the book.)

Firstly, we can note, perhaps unsurprisingly, that inducing certain emotions like anger and disgust can make people judge actions they would normally judge as wrong more severely.

“Schnall et al. (2005) asked subjects to make moral evaluations of stories while sitting at a desk that was either tidy or filthy. ... Those seated at the filthy desk judged the scenarios to be worse than subjects seated at the clean desk. For example, they gave higher wrongness ratings to a scenario describing a person who accidentally kills his pet dog and then eats it. ... Lerner et al. (1998) showed subjects film clips that were either neutral or evocative of anger. They were then asked to consider some unrelated vignettes that describe people who perpetrate relatively minor transgressions, such as selling a used car without disclosing a defect. Subjects who viewed the anger-inducing clips recommended harsher penalties for the perpetrators in these vignettes. In addition, some studies have shown that induction of sad moods can lead to more negative appraisals of people (Fogas and Bower, 1987). Conversely, physical attractiveness, which is known to induce positive affect, can promote positive appraisals of people, including appraisals of honesty and integrity (Dion et al., 1972). It has also been shown in jury studies that attractive or smiling defendants are treated more leniently (Darby and Jeffers, 1988).” (page 28) [7]

Secondly, Prinz reviews one often cited study by Wheatly and Haidt [8], where researchers hypnotized subjects to feel a pang of disgust upon reading a certain word, (either “take” or “often”). They then asked them to read several short, (1 or two paragraphs,) stories about moral transgressions, as well as, in a second, follow up study, one story designed to describe a morally neutral/positive person and set of actions.

You can read the morally neutral story for yourself:

"Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of

scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take/often picks] topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion." (Wheatly and Haidt, page 782) [8]

They then asked subjects to rate the wrongness of the characters' actions.

Those who felt the pang of disgust when reading the various stories rated the moral transgressions as more wrong. Further, even in the morally neutral/positive story, a feeling of disgust caused subjects to rate the character's actions as somewhat wrong, (though not extremely wrong,) whereas other subjects rated it as not at all wrong. Thus, not only did feelings of disgust increase the harshness of moral

judgments, inducing a feeling of disgust caused subjects to make a moral judgment that other subjects did not make at all.

As in the incest case, subjects had trouble explaining their moral judgment regarding the morally neutral story. They would write things like, “It just seems like he's up to something,” and “I don't know [why it's wrong], it just is.” (Wheatley and Haidt, pg 783) [8]

Third, other researchers [9] have examined the effects of mood induction on subjects answers regarding the “correct” course of action in a moral dilemma presenting a choice between letting 5 people die and pushing someone off a bridge to save them, (philosophers call it the footbridge problem, the study describes it in slightly more detail for those interested,) They showed that people in a positive mood had a greater likelihood of making the “utilitarian” decision, to sacrifice the 1 to save the five, than people in a neutral mood.

All these studies show that inducing certain emotions in people can cause changes in their moral judgments. People's emotions play a causal role in shaping their moral judgments, and, in turn, probably their moral beliefs. Naturalists and non-naturalists must explain all of these cases as cases of bias, as in the previous example on judgments of incest.

In the hypnotically induced disgust case, in particular, it seems unclear how moral realists can argue that a process of emotional projection did not take place. It seems clear that the study subjects felt a pang of disgust towards a word in the story, and that their pang of disgust gave them the sense that the character in the neutral story had acted wrongly, whereas without that feeling of disgust other subjects did not have this sense. An emotion they felt towards the character's action gave them a sense that a moral quality applied to the character's action which, I presume, most moral realists would not agree applied. (Unless one induced similar emotions in them as well, of course.)

These studies seem, then, to demonstrate the presence of the mechanisms projectivists posit. Projectivists simply attribute to these mechanisms, (in combination with accepting as true the beliefs of parents, peers, and other members of one's culture,) responsibility for all moral judgments, whereas moral realists regard them as a cause of false or unjustified moral judgments, while still claiming that moralists can, somehow, use some other means to come up with correct, or at least justified or more likely correct, moral judgments.

Emotions affect “moral” behaviors:

One could hypothesize, in regards to the study on the effects of mood on judgments of the footbridge dilemma, that those in a positive mood simply thought more clearly or more deeply, that their positive mood increased the likelihood that they would act to gain further positive feelings from saving lives, and/or that their mood dampened possible effects of guilt from the thought of killing someone they regarded as innocent to save the others.

Another experiment, examining people's perceptions of fairness and justice, may present further evidence for the last hypothesis. Quote:

"O'Malley and Davies (1984) also manipulated mood and measured subject's allocations of rewards to either themselves or to others. They had subjects engage in a puzzle where performance was quantifiable, and, after a fixed time period, subjects were led to believe that they had done either better or worse than another subject. They then were asked how they thought they should divide 100 raffle

tickets between themselves and a partner. For subjects who performed better than the supposed other subject, mood had no effect—all subjects behaved in a fairly selfish way, taking a high percentage of the raffle tickets for themselves. However, for subjects who performed worse than the other, mood did affect the allocation strategies. In particular, subjects in a happy mood took more of the raffle tickets, and subjects in a sad mood took fewer tickets, when compared to subjects in a neutral mood." [10]

Thus, a sad mood seems to motivate people to take the costly action of giving some benefit to another (supposed) subject, while a happy mood motivates them to take more for themselves. Hypothesizing that positive moods dampen feelings of guilt fits this evidence well.

Other research indicated that self-reported feelings of anger predicted rejection of unfair offers in ultimatum games, where one party can choose to give the second party a certain percentage of some amount of money, while keeping the rest for themselves, and the second party can either reject the offer, leading to both of them receiving nothing, or accept it, leading to each party receiving the percentage proposed by the first person. So, anger can incline people to punish others for unfair behavior, even at a cost to themselves. [11]

Does all this research help us adjudicate between moral realism and antirealism?

I doubt readers will think that, in the hypnotism case, for instance, subjects really accurately perceived a quality of wrongness applying to the character's actions in the story designed as morally neutral. In this case, I think people may agree with me that, in some sense, the subjects succumbed to an "illusion" of the wrongness of the character's act. I think this illustrates how I imagine projection working, people feel certain ways towards certain people, scenarios, and actions, and their feelings produce in them a sense that some real qualities of rightness, wrongness, goodness, evilness, obligatoriness, permissibility, etc., apply to the objects of their experience. The fact that the process involves people's emotions explains why people have a feeling of compulsion, of sorts, a feeling of "must-be-doneness" tied together with their moral intuitions.

If the ubiquitous effects of emotions on moral judgments come down to bias, as moral realists might claim, then what method have research subjects failed to use to reach their moral judgments? Moral realists need an “operational definition” of moral terms, they need an ability to explain what in the real world of our (presumably) shared experience they want to use moral concepts to represent. If asked, “What do you mean by good, or evil?”, they can not simply respond that everyone just knows what they mean, because when we look at the reasons and justifications given by most people for many of their decisions regarding moral questions, they themselves have no idea why they make the judgments that they do. Things just feel right, or wrong, to them, and when asked for some kind of objective demonstration of the truth of their claims, they can't provide one. They don't even know how to begin.

A projective hypothesis can explain why people, at least sometimes, imagine moral rules to apply universally, regardless of people's desires or interests, and regardless of the culture in which someone grew up or participates. They don't have to think about these things to reach a moral judgment, feelings like disgust can suffice to make them judge someone even though they can't explain why they make the judgment. It can explain why people without certain emotional capacities, but with normal levels of intelligence and with plenty of motivation to understand normal moral concepts, still can not do so. It can explain why people from different cultures seem to disagree about morality, even when researchers fail to find any empirical dispute between them. It can explain why people make moral judgments even when they admit they can't explain why something seems wrong to them, and why manipulating people's moods and emotions can change their moral judgments and their behaviors in scenarios thought of as morally significant.

Can moral realists, either naturalists or non-naturalists, explain these phenomena as well or better than projectivists? To me, it seems that they can not. If we can discover moral truths through the use of reason to understand empirical evidence, why can intelligent psychopaths not understand moral concepts? Why can't researchers figure out what empirical evidence parties to moral disputes disagree about? Why doesn't anyone seem to have a clear idea of what morality consists of in the first place? If moral qualities exist, how to find them eludes me completely.

Can Instrumentalism come to the rescue?

When I asked Bill to participate in this debate, he offered me a link to his "playbook", a brief chapter from an ebook he wrote. From reading it, I expect him to defend some version of “morality” consisting of sets of hypothetical imperatives, rather than categorical ones, possibly with discussions of game theory and how different strategies can lead to better outcomes in different sorts of economic games, (like the ultimatum game mentioned above, or the common prisoner's dilemma game,) where one measures "better" in economic terms of some sort, presumably based on the subjective utility of different courses of action to the actors involved.

Let me just quote the first part of the chapter:

"Listen egoist, moral skeptic, and others who consider natural law to be 'nonsense on stilts' or 'spooks in the mind.' You don't need spooks or morality to make sense of rights language. I want to convince you of this. I will not try to attempt to change your view of natural rights. My modest aim is to convince you that language using rights jargon [emphasis in original] can be translated into egoist and even amoral terms, and still make sense." [12]

To which I respond: then why do we need morality? Why bring in all the baggage and confusion of thousands of years of vitriolic rhetoric about gods and hells and sins and rights and how to remake the world in the image of All That is Good and Just, if we can skip it and speak more clearly by saying what we mean? Why invite the "spooks", (Max Stirner's term, of course,) into our discussion if doing so serves no, ahem, scientific, or practical benefit?

I may have already provided an answer to this question. Maybe moral beliefs, specifically belief in objective morals, in real morals that exist out in the world instead of just in our mind, helps us cooperate and live happier lives, (by whatever standard of happiness we use.) I haven't seen studies on this question other than the one I already mentioned, [5] and, while I really like that they did that study, I remain unconvinced. I think we need more, and better, evidence than they present, and I hope they and others do more experiments and research in the area. But I remain unconvinced.

Never-the-less, even if morality does provide us with some sort of benefit, this doesn't demonstrate the truth of moral beliefs. Imagine you and I want to meet up somewhere, and we pick a bridge or a cabin in a wooded area. We both have maps telling us how to get there, but when we reach our destination, we find no bridge or cabin present where we expected. As far as our meeting up goes, it doesn't matter, we still succeeded. Having the same map, or sufficiently similar ones, let us cooperate to achieve our goal. Our success doesn't demonstrate the accuracy of our maps.

I think I agree with Bill that game theory can get us a long ways towards cooperation, even among egoists. In long run situations, people will often have a (subjective, and hypothetical,) reason to

cooperate, because if they cheat other people, or refuse to help them, they'll gain a bad reputation, and others will refuse to help them in return. Contrariwise, helping others can lead to reciprocation on the part of others one interacts with. These incentives, and others, get us a long ways towards rational self- interest generating social order.

But in some situations, people may need more. Peter Leeson describes one possible example in a study on the Vlax Roma, a culture that existed in the U.S. for a time. [13] People in this culture lived lives as nomads, and often made money through illegal means, thus limiting their ability to rely on gossip and government to settle their disputes and maintain social order. Leeson describes the methods they developed to maintain social order beyond the basic social ostracism described above.

The Vlax Roma had a law code that members of their culture had to follow, and relied on religious institutions for ajudication of disputes. Part of their culture involved a concept of how people could, if they broke their laws, become "marime". Quoting Leeson:

“Gypsy law is called Romaniya. Romaniya is customary and oral. It defines the rules Gypsies must follow according to their ritual beliefs. The core of these beliefs is the concept of ritual pollution, or marime, and ritual purity, or vujo. A person or object may be dirty, what Gypsies call melyardo, without being marime. What’s marime is morally “soiled,” but not necessarily physically so.” (page 276) [13]

Leeson describes the extensive and elaborate superstitions possessed by the Vlax Roma, which spelled out strict requirements regarding how people had to behave, and how misbehavior would cause people to, essentially, become supernaturally unclean. Their law forbid some things outsiders would likely find odd:

“Menstruation makes the polluted state of women’s lower bodies more potent than men’s. Even women’s skirts are marime: they contact their lower bodies directly. Thus women mustn’t allow their skirts to have contact with men. Brushing a man when passing him may be enough to make him marime...

Gypsies mustn’t wash their hands in the same sink as dishes or eating utensils. Pollution on the hands from contact with the lower body will spread to the water. From the water it will spread to the sink. From the sink it will infect the dishes and utensils washed there. From dishes and utensils it will spread to food. And from food the pollution will infect the eaters. Similarly, Gypsies must never use sponges or cloths they also use to clean their bodies to wash dishes or cutlery. ...

The lower body’s spiritual pollution is so powerful that even directly referencing the polluting source or functions associated with it is taboo. One mustn’t mention urine, fecal matter, genitals, or the bathroom. A Gypsy must pretend to be leaving the room for some other purpose when he goes to relieve himself. Gypsies also frown on yawning. It suggests sleepiness. This in turn suggests a bed, which has marime connotations.” (page 277 – 278) [13]

On the other hand, their law also forbids other behaviors one might expect.

“Under Romaniya, theft, fraud, contractual default, or violence toward another Gypsy is polluting just as is washing a woman’s clothes with a man’s, unguarded contact with the lower body, or eating from a fork that was washed in the same sink used for hands. These socially

uncooperative behaviors are subject to the same taboos as the latter behaviors: one mustn’t engage in them. If a Gypsy does, he becomes marime (Weyrauch 2001b: 246, 263; Weyrauch and Bell 1993: 351). By designating crimes this way, the concept of marime creates what non- Gypsies recognize as laws.” (page 281) [13]

If the behavior of the Vlax Roma sounds obsessive compulsive to my readers, allow me to utilize the opportunity to ask, what if our "morality" employs those same feelings of compulsion, if in a less extreme form?

I touched on some of the evidence connecting the emotion of disgust to people's moral intuitions already, I may get deeper into it later in the debate. But it seems perfectly plausible to me, indeed, it seems likely, that our moral framework offers us a similar superstition to that of the concept of "marime" used by the Vlax Roma. They say certain behaviors render people marime, we say they make people evil. They imagine a form of uncleanliness that won't go away from just washing it off, we imagine forms of requirements on our behavior that apply regardless of culture, desire, self-interest, or, it seems, any natural property. We attribute to them a faulty framework, we regard nothing as marime, not in the sense that we have no problem with them killing people, but in the sense that we don't believe that any behavior, including killing people, makes them unclean in the way they believe. Moral nihilists regard nothing as right or wrong, good or evil, not in the sense that they don't care about what anyone does, but in the sense that they regard the whole framework of morality as having thoroughly failed to describe real properties of the world in which we live.

I can't prove for sure that the quality of "marime" does not exist, nor can I prove for sure that nothing qualifies as really good or evil in a moral sense. But I think I have laid out, at the very least, the seed of a case that one can reject a belief in morality on the grounds that we do not have sufficient evidence to believe in its reality.

I offer these thoughts up for discussion, and hope everyone finds something good in the conversation, whether they ultimately believe in moral good, or not.


1: As a Matter of Fact: Empirical Perspectives on Ethics, by John M. Doris and Stephen P. Stich,

2: Michael Huemer defends a version of this theory in his book Ethical Intuitionism

3: See, e.g., The Myth of Morality and The Evolution of Morality by Richard Joyce, Ethics Without Morals by Joel Marks, and Response to Duke Naturalists by Michael Ruse in Moral Psychology Volume 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, pg. 33-36

4: The Psychological Foundations of Moral Conviction, by Linda J. Skitka, in Advances in Moral Psychology, edited by J. Wright & H. Sarkissian

5: Moral Realism as Moral Motivation: The Impact of Meta-Ethics on Everyday Decision-Making, by Liane Young and A.J. Durwin, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2013), pg. 302-306

6: For an example of moral naturalists who reject categoricity, see Naturalising Ethics, by Owen Flanagan, Hagop Sarkissian, and David Wong, in Moral Psychology Volume 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, pg.1-26

7: The Emotional Construction of Morals, by Jesse J. Prinz

8: Hypnotic Disgust Makes Moral Judgments More Severe, by Thalia Wheatley and Johnathan Haidt, Psychological Science (2005), pg. 780-784

9: Valdesolo, P., and D. DeSteno. (2006), Manipulations of emotional context shape moral judgment. Psychological Science, 17, no. 6: 476–77 contexts-shape-moral-judgment.pdf

10: Affect and the perception of injustice, by Steven J. Scher and David R. Heise

11: The Role of Moral Sentiments in Economic Decision Making, by Timothy Ketelaar, in Social Psychology and Economics, edited by David De Cremer, Marcel Zeelenberg, and J. Keith Murnighan, page 107

12: Against Authority, by Bill Orton

13: See Gypsy Law by Peter T. Leeson, Public Choice, 155 (2013) pg. 273-292. I have heard that the word “gypsy” offends some members of this culture, so I use the term Vlax Roma, which describes a particular subset of “gypsies” more generally.

Nov. 2, 2015

Moral Skepticism Versus Moral Objectivism
Bill's First Response

I thank Sasha for the opportunity to debate moral skepticism versus moral objectivism. I am taking the moral objectivist side. So what is moral objectivism? It is not moral realism, called intrinsicism by Ayn Rand.[1] Moral realism claims that a normative value is an intrinsic part of physical objects or conduct. This is Sasha’s Naturalist position combined with the anti-Naturalist position. Moral objectivism is certainly not moral subjectivism, the denial that morality has anything to do with reality outside the mind of the moral agent. This is Sasha’s Subjective and Projective positions together. Moral objectivism is an eclectic position, saying that morality is a function of both empirical reality and man’s nature. Man’s nature includes, very importantly, the fact that he uses conceptual thinking as his major tool for living. By living, I mean both surviving and thriving. As Rand put it, the objective good is “determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man’s mind.”

Morality, in its ethical sense, is the branch of philosophy concerned with right and wrong conduct. Thus, experts in the field are generally useful and informative. If I wanted to learn about calculus, I’d look to mathematicians, not people off the street. I say this because, although I learned a whole lot of fascinating things about the psychology of moral decisions, I question the relevancy to morality in the ethical sense. So angry people make different moral decisions from happy people - does that tell us anything about ethics? I don’t think so. It’s likely that angry people do worse on calculus tests than happy people. Do we doubt the validity of calculus for this reason? To paraphrase Doris and Stich in Sasha’s first citation, ethics should not ignore psychology, but it shouldn’t be psychology.

Moral objectivism basically says that there are some core principles that can be deduced from how man lives and prospers. For example, murder is forbidden in all human cultures everywhere that we know of. We can easily understand how societies that didn’t forbid murder would be at a competitive disadvantage over those that did. We can understand how getting killed by someone could ruin our day. We can understand how it is rational (if you want to live) to agree to forego killing others (even if it might be convenient or beneficial sometimes) if others agree not to kill you, since your own life has infinite value. These are not totally subjective considerations, but rather empirically based judgements about how the world works. Of course, different societies and cultures have different exceptions, when killing other humans is deemed okay - not murder. The point is that the “thou shalt not kill” morality is cross cultural and, I claim, based on empirical considerations.

Of course Sasha and I both picked examples that illustrated our position best. I picked murder, he picked children tormenting birds. I believe that moral objectivism provides an explanation for why prohibition against murder, robbery, rape, assault, and fraud are immoral cross-culturally, while bird tormenting is not. With moral objectivism, the human conduct that has the most empirically obvious survival value becomes the kernel of morality - common to virtually all human societies. (Well, maybe excepting a few artificial ones, like prisons.) The more remote the survival value or the empirical proof of such is, the less likely it will be accepted by people. Very remote conduct, like playing with birds, may be viewed quite differently in different societies. Besides remoteness, there are other factors that result in differences in morality between cultures. Various “random” anomalies can occur in societies, like taboos or fetishes or superstitions. Some conduct may be morally neutral, or approximately so. Some moral calculations may be too complex for some people in some places.

Let’s look at Hopi children tormenting birds. It turns out that birds are key to Hopi mythology, their ceremonial dress has a lot of bird feathers, and the children are likely gathering feathers for religious purposes or imitating their elders. In short, children mess with birds because the Hopi believe that a wren brought them out of the underworld in their creation/exodus myth.[2] My moral objectivist observation is that, compared to murder or robbery, playing with birds has little survival or life-enhancement value that can be empirically determined. It may be morally neutral. I cannot help but note that every day in Springdale thousands of birds are tormented and killed, which is fine by me. I like dark meat.

Sasha asks, “Why do we need morality?” A person needs morality - a theory of right and wrong conduct - as a tool to live a better life. It is the easiest way to “say what we mean” without “all the baggage and confusion of thousands of years of vitriolic rhetoric about gods and hells and sins,” as he puts it. Ethics beats superstition. A moral principle is true if it is life-enhancing, rationally and empirically, and satisfies the universality axiom.

Notice that my formulation of morality does not hold that there is a categorical imperative in the sense that Sasha uses the term. (It does use the universality axiom - that a valid ethical principle applies to all relevant moral agents.) In particular, I think that for me and most people morality starts with the hypothetical, “If I want to live … ” or even “If I want to live a good life among other people …” Thus, suicidal people may have a completely different morality. Also, I am not a moral monist, but neither am I a relativist. Here, also, I take an eclectic stance. I am a modal monist. I think that there are a small finite number of moral environments with different “rules.” E.g. In the normal civilized moral environment, I hold the NAP - the non-aggression principle ethic. But in an emergency situation, say swimming to a lifeboat or dropped into a pitched battle or defending myself against attackers with innocent shields, all NAP bets are off. In environments where survival is at issue, other moral considerations may apply.

I want to ask Sasha: Do you deny that there are rational and empirical reasons for a moral principle or heuristic against murder in the civilized moral environment? E.g. Natural, evolutionary, game theoretic, and/or contractarian reasons.[3] If you admit that there are rational reasons for being against murder in principle, then have you not conceded that objective morality, as I defined it, exists?

[1] “There are, in essence, three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of “good” from beneficiaries, and the concept of “value” from valuer and purpose—claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself. … The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man’s consciousness.” - Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p21.

[2] The Hopi were bird fetishists.

[3] “Listen Egoist!” discusses some justifications of morality in a (general moral) rights context.

Nov. 16, 2015

Moral Skepticism and Moral Objectivism
Sasha's Rebuttal

I thank Bill for his excellent, and thoughtful, reply. In asking him for his thoughts on my treatise, I had hoped that he could explain what he thought of as morality, and that I could understand it in turn. I think he has made a good attempt, and I hope now that I understand the gist of his philosophy, but I remain unsure on some points. I hope he can clarify them for me.

Bill asks, (wisely, I think), a measured question, to which I can only offer a measured answer. I of course wish to evaluate his beliefs based on the empirical evidence we have available. I will try to offer a paraphrased summary of his question, and to walk through it and try to better operationalize some of the terms that trigger red flags for me. I hope I do not misinterpret him, but I will have to read his next reply to know how well I do.

Let us ask the following:

“Do rational and empirical reasons exist for one to have a heuristic against murdering others, if one wants to live, or one wants to live a good life among other people, and while one operates within the civilized moral environment?”

Bill thankfully informs us that morality, as he defines it, “does not hold that there is a categorical imperative in the sense that Sasha uses the term”, and he seems to accept my explication of hypothetical imperatives, treating them as claims regarding how best to achieve some specified ends. So lets try to simplify our question:

“Will having a heuristic against murdering others help one live, or help one live a good life among other people, while one operates within the civilized moral environment?”

To this question, I can answer yes, but only if I make further assumptions about what Bill means by certain terms. (And, thus, to Bill's original, unparaphrased question, I can answer that no, I do not deny that such reasons exist, again assuming that we give certain meanings to certain terms.)

Going on with our unpacking, the phrases “heuristic”, “murder”, “live”, “live a good life”, and “civilized moral environment” strike out at me as needing further explaining, before we can determine, empirically, an answer to our question.

By “living” Bill explains that he means “both surviving and thriving.” I worry that trying to elaborate on the words/phrases “thrive”, “good life”, and “civilized moral environment” might tip us over into a viscous circle.

We can't explain, for example, that by “good life”, we mean a life lived as a moral person, since we want to explain what we mean by “moral”. And, unless we already assume some correct moral philosophy, I do not know how to further define “civilized moral environment”, except, perhaps, as “an environment in which people usually operate according to some moral code”, leaving open the question of just what moral code they operate in accordance with.

Other philosophers use terms that give me similar worries. For example, Ayn Rand, (whom Bill seems to admire,) sometimes talked about “happiness” as a moral good, [1] and Sam Harris uses the phrase “well-being”. [2] I think happiness, in so far as it makes sense as an idea, probably involves several different emotions people sometimes try to attempt to feel, (e.g. peace, contentment, joy, momentary pleasure, satisfaction with one's day-by-day experiences and activities, pride, romantic infatuation, feeling loved in a platonic sense by one's friends, etc.) Well-being sounds even more vague, and doesn't strike me as especially useful.

I guess, honestly, readers will probably understand my worries without me embarking upon a verbose attempt at analyzing in depth how and why people feel positive emotions. I believe that different people have different goals, and that the ideas people have about what would make a “good life” for them both vary and depend on their moral beliefs and intuitions, if those two things are not simply the same set of intuitions to begin with. I don't feel like stepping from the question, “What do you mean by 'moral'?”, to “What do you mean by a 'good life'?”, really gets us very far from where we started.

But let's say we rely on self-reporting, plus some cautious, intuitive judgment on our own part. If we find people that say they feel like they have a good life, and they act in ways that make it look to us like they feel good about their lives, then perhaps we can set aside these worries for the moment and move on to the rest of the question.

Bill claims that all societies that we know of prohibit murder, going on to say that different societies have different ideas about what counts as “murder” and what counts as an okay act of killing someone. While I agree with him that different cultures have different conceptions of “murder”, when he later asks his question about whether or not I deny that people have rational and empirical reasons to hold a heuristic against murder, I don't know whether he means “murder” in the sense of killing when he, or perhaps other libertarians, would have a problem with it, or “murder” in the sense of killing someone in violation of the norms of the culture of those one lives among and interacts with. I will use the second sense for the moment, because I think he probably meant this, but in doing so I wonder whether or not we also lose the ability to defend the specific moral code he follows and advocates for?

I expect him to reply that people living in a libertarian culture would, as individuals, have greater chances of living a “good life” than those in other cultures, thus giving people some sort of reason to change their culture, but while these individuals remained in their present culture it would probably help them achieve a sense of living a “good life” for them to follow their own culture's norms, because others they interact with would try to enforce these norms, and because the norms of their own culture would probably shape what made them feel like they led a “good life” in the first place.

Before moving on to the word “heuristic”, I want to talk a little more about morals across different cultures. I fear that, in choosing my example of the Hopi children, I may have given the erroneous impression that world cultures converge more in their moral beliefs and values than they actually do. I want to remedy this.

I picked the Hopi for my example because the researchers explicitly tried to determine whether the moral dispute between themselves and the Hopi resulted from a difference in beliefs about empirical facts or not, (and because they concluded that the difference in beliefs did not come from any empirical dispute they could find.) They tried to control for differences in empirical beliefs, whereas with other examples of moral disagreement researchers may not have included this control, and thus other examples might not have provided as strong evidence for my case as the one I chose.

Since Bill offers cultural convergence on other moral questions as evidence of moral objectivism, I want to show that, even if cultures do universally prohibit “murder”, they differ in their ideas of what counts as “murder” more than Bill lets on.

For example, in one essay Jesse Prinz says, “The headhunting Guhuku-Gama of New Guinea, for example, think that [it's] morally wrong to kill a member of their kin group, and perfectly fine to kill others. This is not an inconsistent position: they think it is morally acceptable for others to kill their kin. Moral considerability is a function of connectedness to the moral agent.” [3]

If the Guhuku-Gama prohibit murder, then they think of it in a different way than does Bill. This makes a difference for our question. People growing up and living among the Guhuku-Gama would have little reason to avoid the moral condemnation of their fellows by not killing members of other kin groups if their fellows do not morally condemn this.

Prinz gives other examples of cultural variation in moral beliefs and practices elsewhere. Let me quote two passages from two different essays by him:

“[T]he Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Egypt married their siblings at a rate of up to 30%; the Aztecs of Mexico and countless small-scale societies indulged in cannibalism; the Romans filled arenas to watch gladiators slaughter each other; Thonga men have sex with their daughters before hunting; the women of China endured excruciating pain by binding their feet; gender inequity and slavery have been widely accepted, and widely condemned. Closer to home, we find interminable debates between liberals and conservatives. We also find regional differences: Southern white men are much more likely than their Northern counterparts to morally approve of violent reprisals for public insults, and other nonviolent offenses. These examples are not exotic. Any two randomly chosen cultures will have dramatic differences in moral values, and many of these differences (such as polygymy versus monogamy or Southern bellicosity versus Northern diplomacy) have no basis in different factual beliefs. This suggests that basic moral values do not have a purely cognitive source.” [3]

And, quoting from the second essay:

“Is there a universal prohibition against harm? The evidence is depressingly weak. Torture, war, spousal abuse, corporal punishment, belligerent games, painful initiations, and fighting are all extremely widespread. Tolerated harm is as common as its prohibition. There is also massive cultural variation in who can be harmed and when. Within our own geographic boundaries, subcultures disagree about whether capital punishment, spanking, and violent sports are permissible. Globally, every extreme can be found. In the Amazon, Yanamomo warriors engage in an endless cycle of raiding and revenge (Cagnon, 1992). Among the Ilongot of Luzon, a boy was not considered a man until he took the head of an innocent person in the next villiage; when he returned home, women would greet him with a chorus of cheers (Rosaldo, 1980). In the New Guinea highlands, there are many groups that engage in perpetual warfare; between twenty and twenty-five percent of recorded male deaths in these groups are due to homicide (the numbers for women are much lower; Wrangham, 2004). Throughout geography and history, cannibalism has been a commmon practice, most indulgently pursued by the Aztecs, who sometimes consumed tens of thousands in a single festival (Harris, 1986). Brutality is also commonplace in large-scale industrial societies. As a U.S. General recently said, 'Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people' (Schmitt, 2005).” [4]

I think I could probably find other examples with more research. In India [5] and Pakistan [6] people still often engage in “honor killings”, for instance, and these killings still enjoy support from many people living in those areas.

Bill's inclusion of rape in his list of cross-cultural prohibitions I found particularly interesting, and surprising, having recently read some work by Elizabeth Abbott about various, (and numerous,) cultures from human history that permitted the sexual enslavement of women. Let me quote one passage describing the relatively benign conditions in 17th century Japan:

“Concubines had the status of servants and could never attain wifely status. Even widowers or bachelors who wished to marry them could not do so. If the concubine was brought to live in her master's home, she was subject to his wife's authority and could never infringe on her position.

...A wife's failure to conceive a child gave her husband legal grounds to divorce her, but she could be saved from such an extreme measure if her husband's concubine could do the job. ... One of the most common words for a concubine, mékaké, means 'borrowed womb.' A mékaké's son by her master would not really be hers. His father's wife would raise the infant as his official mother, and his father would acknowledge him as an heir. His concubine birth mother would remain their servant, and now also her son's. The first time she would see her baby after delivering him would be on the thirtieth day after his birth, when she accompanied the other servants on a formal visit to pay her respects to her new little master.” [7]

But I guess that, maybe, Bill uses the word “rape” in a sense that depends on the norms surrounding sexual coercion in a given culture, similarly to how he uses “murder” in a relative way? Either that, or I think he uses it in the way that first occurs to me, in the sense of forcing someone to have sexual intercourse against their will, but he lacks knowledge of the institutions of sexual enslavement that have existed in different cultures.

But lets move on to the important word “heuristic”. When I hear “heuristic”, I think of how one might try to avoid losing one's queen in chess. Playing against someone while following the heuristic, “Don't lose your queen!”, might make it more likely for one to win, especially when playing against someone who uses their queen with wild abandon and makes no attempt to not lose it. At the same time, situations may arise when following the heuristic could lose one the game, and where trading one's queen for the ability to achieve some other end might make sense as a way to try and win.

The fact that a person trying to win at a game of chess might sometimes have reasons to depart from a heuristic that they follow as a general practice does not mean that they have no reason to hold the heuristic at all. But at the end of his response Bill jumps from asking, “Do you deny that there are rational and empirical reasons for a moral principle or heuristic against murder in the civilized moral environment?”, to asking, “If you admit that there are rational reasons for being against murder in principle, then have you not conceded that objective morality, as I defined it, exists?” I need him to clarify what he means by “in principle”, as opposed to “heuristic”, before I can get past my suspicion that he unwarrentedly equivocates between the two, and actually try to answer his question.

“In principle”, to me, makes it sound like one holds to a principle unwaveringly, uncompromisingly, absolutely. It means something different to me from “heuristic”. Heuristics, to me, merely provide one with decision-making short-cuts, they give one an approximate answer when an approximation will suffice, whereas other decision-making methods would hopefully give one correct answers, all of the time, instead of just something close to correct answers.

I don't mind principles that have qualifications. For example, if one says, “Never kill except in self- defense or in defense of another, unless in an emergency situation,” then one could think of this as a principle against killing under certain circumstances, that one could always hold to, instead of as a principle against killing that one would not always hold to.

But, while I accept that having a heuristic, a principle or set of principles that one often followed or that one followed by default, against violating the norms of one's culture surrounding when to kill people and when not to, might help one gain a sense of living a “good life”, I suspect that, when Bill asks about being against murder “in principle”, he wants something a little bit stronger than this. A heuristic provides one with recommendations, but not with absolutes. In practice, actors must always balance all the factors of a given situation to find the best way to achieve their goals.

Bill's book, (which he refers to in a footnote,) gives some cool, potential reasons for people to not kill each other. But, while I would like to have the ability to make similar arguments to his own for the possibility of people peacefully coexisting under anarchy, or even without a set of beliefs that I would think of as morality, I think the sorts of reasons he discusses don't quite reach as far as he, or I, would like.

Consider a few such reasons: If you try to kill someone, the victim or their family, friends, and/or community might fight back. They might also refuse to help you or interact with you in the future, thus depriving you of benefits you might otherwise have had. You might find it harder to find new people to interact with, from whose cooperation you could benefit. Or you might influence others more indirectly, perhaps others will see your behavior and decide to start killing people themselves. The more people that die, whether by your hand or the hands of others, the less people you will have available to work with in the future, and the less secure those who remain alive will feel, making the productivity of survivors possibly drop. You might also end up feeling guilty, or loosing your self- control and ending up killing other people as well, even if you don't initially mean to.

People who take all of these things into account may, quite often, end up trying to avoid killing each other, based on a combination of their own goals, (a subjective state or set of states,) and their understanding of the world, (models of cause and effect relationships derived from empirical evidence.) This sounds to me almost like what Bill means by objective morality, a set of general principles about how to act in order to live what one thinks of as a “good life”, based on what one knows of oneself, of others, and of human behavior. And a game theoretic analysis that takes these reasons into account might help us explain cases where and when people achieve a degree of peaceful, social order.

It can also help us explain, and identify, cases where social order might break down, or in which people might choose, rationally, to depart from the norms of their community or the heuristics they themselves hold.

The reasons provided rely on one's victim, or other people one interacts with, to have the ability to fight back. The more power one holds over others, the weaker these reasons become. They also depend upon a willingness on the part of third parties to retaliate, which may not exist if one lives in a culture that accepts killing in certain cases, (as with the honor killings in Pakistan and India,) and upon the ability of third parties to learn about one's actions, which disappear in proportion to how easily one can hide what one has done. Fear of guilt and loss of self-control depend both upon one having a particular constitution, and upon the situation being the kind that would make one feel guilty, such that, if one knows that they will not feel guilt or lose their self-control after killing in a given case, then these reasons go away as well, at least growing weaker if not evaporating altogether.

Think of a single parent who has hit on hard times and no longer believes that they can take care of their kid, or find a good home for them elsewhere. Say that they decide to kill their child, without warning, rather than watch the child suffer. They take their victim on a hiking trip, shoot them in the middle of the woods in the back of the head, hide the remains, perhaps burning them beforehand if possible without alerting anyone, and return home.

Do our mentioned reasons overcome their reasons for killing their child in this case? The arguments one could give the parent seem roundly weak. Children go missing all the time, how likely would the parent suffer retaliation or punishment for their actions? How likely would anyone find out what happened? Do they live in a culture of people that condemn killing children in these sorts of cases? Do others have the ability to retaliate if they find out and do condemn the parent? Would the child have the ability to fight back, if they figured out what their parent was about to do? How easily could the child get away, perhaps to seek help? Would the child even try to fight back, faced with death at the hands of someone they trusted with their lives, looked up to, and depended upon? How easily could the parent kill their child without ever alerting them to what they were about to do? Could they kill them without the child ever knowing what happened, so that the child's death brought minimal suffering to them?

What about reasons for killing the child? Could the parent benefit by no longer having to take care of another human being? They may feel guilt, or ask themselves why they should not go on and kill others as well, perhaps including themselves, I suppose, but they would need to weigh this potential guilt against the guilt of trying to take care of a child they couldn't care for. How does one weigh those guilts? Can one weigh them in any objective way?

I have tried to pick a fair example. I did not discuss, say, whether the president of the U.S. has reasons to not order military personnel to carry out drone strikes, which of course the president gets away with all of the time in the real world, or whether or not police have reasons to not kill civilians, something they often get away with as well, in the U.S. and elsewhere, or even whether a psychopath has reasons to not wander around the world killing random strangers for fun, which I think many people could probably get away with, at least for a while. I picked this example to illustrate that people in our own culture, with relatively normal psychological profiles, often end up in positions of power over vulnerable family members, friends, coworkers, and so forth, and that the reasons we have come up with do not always apply to them.

I think, I hope, that the sorts of reasons discussed could motivate people, more often than not, to avoid killing others, even at great cost to themselves. I don't like the idea of someone knocking on my door and informing me of their intentions to kill me for sheer sport. And, in fact, I do think these sorts of incentives often lead people to create forms of social order amongst themselves. So, if Bill wants to call an understanding of these kinds of incentives and heuristics morality, then I think I could possibly say I believe in morality in the sense that he means. I will certainly think about it some more.

But, in all honesty, I do not place much hope in the reasons we have discussed for ensuring my own safety, or the safety of those I care about. If I received that knock on the door, I doubt I could persuade my killer to change their vacation plans by discussing the reasons we have discussed, even if they, having a philosophical and reflective bent, listened and rationally considered all that I had to say, and even if they understood correctly all the facts of the situation, and examined all the empirical evidence available. If they feel that they could gain enough pleasure from killing me to make it worth the risk, then what reasons could I offer them to not?

Bill says that he holds eclectic positions, which I take to imply that he knows his own moral and meta- ethical views differ from many, probably most, professional philosophers, and even from those well read in philosophy who do not teach it or work as a philosopher, and who thus would not qualify as professional. He also suggests not placing too much weight in the moral decision making capabilities of “people off the street”, even though he seems to disagree with many of the experts, whom he suggests we look to for guidance instead. Curiously, he also implies that he thinks most people “off the street” do not believe in categorical imperatives, in the sense in which I used the term in my opening statement, saying, “I think that for me and most people morality starts with the hypothetical, 'If I want to live ...' or even 'If I want to live a good life among other people ...'” I take it that he receives these ideas of life as the hypothetical from Ayn Rand [1] and Murray Rothbard, [8] though Ayn Rand, of course, like Bill, used "live" to mean something other than mere survival. I don't share his thought that most people think about morality in this way, and I honestly don't understand what makes him think most ordinary people think about it in this way either.

I do think that Bill and I hold similar ideas as to how people evolved to have moral codes. Specifically, I have already conceded that the reasons mentioned above may help lead people to cooperate with others with whom they interact, which, in turn, could lead to the survival of people and groups of people who acted on those sorts of reasons. I would go farther than he does, however. I think people would likely evolve to believe in categorical imperatives as well, not because such imperatives exist, but because a sincere belief in their existence, even a sincere, and false, belief, could potentially help people survive.

Consider two people you have a choice of interacting with, perhaps entering a romantic relationship with them, or a business relationship. You ask them both what reasons they think they have not to kill you, and what causes them not to kill you. Why will they choose to keep cooperating with you in the future, instead of harming you?

One of them explains their understanding of game theory, and talks about how, in most cases, it would not serve their own interests to kill you, or harm you in other ways. Cooperating with you can help them achieve their goals. Since they act, rationally to achieve their goals, balancing costs, benefits, and risks off of each other, they will thus cooperate with you under ordinary conditions. If you don't trust them, the two of you can come up some kind of arrangement to ensure that both of you have an even greater interest in not harming the other, for example if only you know the combination to a safe that has their money in it, and vice versa, or if you agree to have certain third parties keep track of your interactions, or something like that.

The other explains, in vague to the point of incomprehensible terms, and in a shocked voice, that of course they would never kill you, that would be wrong! When asked to explain, their belief in the wrongness of killing you, and others, has the characteristics of an irrational compulsion, like the fear the Vlax Roma had of becoming marime. When you observe their behavior, you find that they enforce their moral beliefs on others, even at so great a cost to themselves that their behavior again seems irrational, in an economic sense, and at first glance. Their conviction that killing is wrong does not rest on any kind of empirical evidence, and is not connected to any of their own goals, other than the goal of doing what is right, or what they think is right. They believe in categorical imperatives, in other words, and their beliefs deeply influence their actions. You may come to understand that, ultimately, this relies on something like a life-long experience of emotional conditioning and indoctrination on their part, and you may think their beliefs make no sense and don't represent or track any real qualities out in the world. But they have no ability to see the world in any other way.

Would would you choose to cooperate with? More to the point, who would other human beings have chosen, historically, to cooperate with? Technically speaking, the person who believes in categorical imperatives could also act in part on all of the same empirically based considerations as the first person. Their beliefs about categorical imperatives could just add extra strength to their reasons for acting in particular ways, it wouldn't have to replace the other reasons we discussed.

If people based a belief in categorical imperatives on their own moral intuitions, the way I have described in my psychological account of normal, human morality, and they lived among others who almost unanimously believed in them as well, would the cost of their false belief grow high enough to get rid of their belief, possibly by getting rid of them? And could these beliefs have given them incentives to cooperate even in some cases when the other reasons we discussed broke down? What if the benefit of strengthened incentives to cooperate outweighed the cost, in terms of evolutionary fitness, of holding false beliefs in this regard?

I find this plausible. I find it probable, given the evidence I provided in my opening statement. The Vlax Roma had a greater incentive to follow their rules because of their superstition, and to enforce their rules through ostracism out of fear of contagion. When their superstitions started breaking down, so did their system of maintaining social order. And when asked to explain their reasons for some deeply held moral beliefs, normal people often fall back on emotional expressions and claims that “It's just wrong! I don't know why, it just is!” As far as I can tell, the moral beliefs held by most people in the world look, walk, and quack like categorical imperatives. If they really do believe in these things, due to the causes I have outlined, and if these sorts of qualities do not exist, then they hold a systematically false, (or arguably arbitrary, to use Ayn Rand's term for non-truth apt claims,) set of beliefs.

If, further, it seems to them that these sorts of qualities exist, even when they do not, then they live, collectively, under the sway of a vast illusion. It seems likely to me that this is the case.

If I think of morality as consisting of categorical imperatives, and Bill does not believe in these, then perhaps part of our disagreement evaporates, being merely semantic. Curiously, though, I think that Bill also believes in reasons that, if they exist, have a much weaker reason-giving power than Bill thinks they have. Bill believes, unless I have failed to understand his thesis, that people have reasons to follow a moral code based on the non-agression principle, and that these reasons override reasons not to follow such a code, except in emergencies and other rare, and presumably transient, situations.

I think Bill and I agree that people often have some non-overriding reasons, (reasons that one can balance against other reasons, not reasons that overcome all other considerations,) for acting according to a heuristic against violating certain social norms. I think that he also believes that these reasons are stronger than they actually are, making things wrong “in principle” even when the empirically based rationales do not apply to the specific situations, or when other reasons outweigh them, such as in my examples of euthanizing a child, ordering drone strikes, engaging in honor killings, and going on killing sprees for fun in random places far from where one lives. While I accept that the reasons he proposes in his book exist, I deny that they have the strength he attributes to them.

I also deny that the considerations we have discussed give us the ability to defend a plan of how to behave based around the non-aggression principle. Our discussion relies too heavily on the culture in which people grow up to provide them with reasons for action, either by shaping what makes them feel guilty or happy or by influencing what actions others in their community will retaliate against them for engaging in. Sometimes, the reasons we have discussed might even give one reason to act contrary to a non-aggression based moral code, as in a culture which expects people to kill others under circumstances in which that act of killing would qualify as aggression, as least according to the concept of aggression that I think Bill holds.

Thus, curiously, I think Bill denies that morality exists in the sense in which I think most people in the world, including most professional philosophers, think that it does, while at the same time believing that morality does exist in a sense that, while I accept as coherent, I think it does not. If he wants to weaken his idea of morality to the claim that people can often help themselves achieve a sense of living a good life by conforming, most of the time, to certain social norms. then I think I can believe in morality in that sense, though at that point it is so far removed from what I think both he and most people in the world think of as morality that I don't feel motivated to call it that.

I have left open a lot of room for conceding, in my next reply, that I have not adequately understood what Bill believes, if in fact that is the case. But I hope I have explained some of my own frustrations with moral philosophers and philosophy.

I know I have not defended an incredibly comforting position. I, personally, have little hope of influencing other people's behaviors through the kind of philosophical discussion Bill engages in every day. To me, trying to change someone's moral code comes down to emotional manipulation, and I have no stomach for it. I think Bill's position offers a sense, of sorts, that good will triumph over evil, that rational individuals will come to agree with one's own point of view, holding the same morals as oneself, and that moral individuals will succeed in creating a morally just society, driving out the evil among their ranks. I think his position offers a sense of security, both physical, in expecting moral behavior as both the norm and as remaining the norm due to its inherent rationality and due to the inherent instability of evil, and psychological, in giving one a sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of community, and, perhaps, a sense of pride.

I also think, unfortunately, that his position is incorrect. I look forward to reading his defense of why he thinks it is not.


1) See Ayn Rand's book “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

2) See Sam Harris's “The Moral Landscape”.

3) Taken from “The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments”, by Jesse Prinz, at

4) See “Is Morality Innate?” by Jesse Prinz, in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's Moral Psychology Volume 1, page 373.

5) See “Another 'Honor Killing' In India: This One Even Features a Beheading”, by Palash Ghosh at

6) See “Pakistan's Honor Killings Enjoy High-Level Support”, Taipei Times, at

7) Taken from “Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman”, by Elizabeth Abbott, pages 45 – 46.

7) Rothbard's book Ethics of Liberty, pages 32-33.

Nov. 25, 2015

Moral Skepticism Versus Moral Objectivism
Bill's Rebuttal

Sasha seems to be conceding the debate issue when he agrees that rational and empirical reasons exist for moral statements, that is, statements having to do with good and bad conduct. But this verdict depends on the definition of “morality.” Is our whole debate merely semantic? It may well be. I think I am using the term in the manner appropriate to a philosophical debate pitting moral skepticism against moral objectivism. Sasha seems to think I am using the term in a non-standard manner. He writes, “I think Bill denies that morality exists in the sense in which I think most people in the world, including most professional philosophers, think that it does ...”

Let’s test that. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has the following definition of morality:

The term “morality” can be used either
1    descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
      a    some other group, such as a religion, or
      b    accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
2    normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions,
      would be put forward by all rational persons.[1]
Sasha uses definition (1) of morality. This is clear from his sociological examples, and even in how he frames our agreements. E.g. He writes, “I think Bill and I agree that people often have some non-overriding reasons, (reasons that one can balance against other reasons, not reasons that overcome all other considerations,) for acting according to a heuristic against violating certain social norms.” The sentence is apt until the last four words. I don’t care a fig about social norms. I would have ended the sentence with “doing bad acts” rather than “violating certain cultural norms.” Being a normative freethinker, I’m concerned with what is right, not what is popular or traditional.

I use morality in the definition (2) sense. Section one of the SEP article says, “Although most philosophers do not use ‘morality’ in any of these descriptive senses, some philosophers do. [It goes on to discuss the exception of ethical relativists, who take Sasha’s position.] So I use the term “morality” like most professional philosophers. (Whether it “exists” or not is a vague question to me.) Note that there is nothing in the definition requiring “categorical imperatives” in Sasha’s no-qualifications sense, but there is in the Kantian “applies to all persons” sense.

So it seems that this issue is largely semantic. I am not surprised; I anticipated that this might be the case. The semantic issue in a nutshell: Sasha thinks of morality like a sociologist, but I think of morality like a philosopher. Sasha defines morality as what people believe is good and bad, whereas I define it as what is actually good and bad. Thus a lot of Sasha’s “evidence” seems irrelevant to me. (But very interesting!) Saying this or that culture raped their kids or murdered people outside their tribe is like saying that there are cultures that haven’t figured out trigonometry, so have trouble navigating and building solid structures. It does not refute trigonometry. A better conclusion is that they are not very advanced in mathematics, or morality. To people who use the normative definition of morality, such stories are not evidence that morality “doesn’t exist” - it is evidence that some cultures have a more advanced conception of morality than others, in some area. To someone who uses the normative definition, citing oddball cultures to deny objective morality is like citing unsound structures to deny the principles of engineering. It is not valid evidence. It shows nothing except that people can violate sound engineering or moral principles.

Sasha asked for clarification of some of the terms I used. A heuristic is a rule that is often true, but not always true. E.g. Develop your pieces and control the center. Or: Murder is the immoral killing of a human, but self-defense is not considered murder. A civilized moral environment is an environment where physical survival is not at issue. E.g. Since it is outside the civilized moral environment, it is not immoral for a starving man to steal a loaf of bread, or for someone captured by kidnappers to kill to escape, or (debatably) to clobber someone with an oar to keep them off a crowded lifeboat. The point is, in survival situations, civilized niceties don’t matter. Maybe other moral considerations do, but certainly the rule-set is different than Saturday morning at Fayetteville Farmers Market.

DevNatRights Sasha properly warns against petito principii - begging the question - when speaking of “a good life.” Must one appeal to morality to have a conception of “a good life?” I think not. Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose there was a world just like earth, except that most people are moral skeptics. Would a life of slavery be thought of as a good life? Would slaves have no objection to their condition, since they didn’t believe in morality? What about war, either between tribes or a constant war of “all against all?” In considering Hobbes’ state of nature, perhaps even moral skeptics would concede that living by “red tooth and claw” would not be a good life. One needn’t have a moral system to think that - simply knowledge of the possibility of less bloody, more life sustaining alternatives may suffice. Does one need a moral system to judge that, mayhem, murder, and plunder don’t work as well for you and people you know than, say, conceiving and utilizing concepts like “aggression” and “reciprocity” to agree not to kill or rob each other? I don’t think so. I think that pre-moral notions like “aggression” and “agreement” (contract) are sufficient to talk about a good life.

Note that eclectic ethical systems are conceivable, with elements of both moral objectivism and cultural subjectivism in the same theory. There is the possibility that ethics has different areas, branches, or modes, with some being more objective, and others being more subjective. Interpersonal conduct in most (non-life-threatening) situations may be quite objective, while self-actualization may be very subjective. Two examples of such combined notions are:

  1. Ayn Rand’s “life of man qua man” is the standard of value, the objective part, and “your own life” is your highest value, the relatively subjective part. “The life of man qua man” could be construed as the objective “high level” principle, as it is derived from facts common to all homo sapiens. But for any particular person, the highest value is his own life. This is a lot more subjective, as it depends on talents, interests, environmental conditions, and so on. Heuristics like “don’t murder” can arguably be justified for men in general. However, decisions concerning self-actualization, like, “What should I major in?” and “Who should I date?” and “Should I take this job?” are of a different sort, with answers not likely to be very objective.

  2. Robert Nozick, in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” suggested modeling morality as an optimization problem with side constraints. The constraints correspond to moral principles, whereas the function that is to be maximized might be a (largely culturally determined) utility function. In Nozick’s libertarian model, non-aggression - or as he puts it, “no border crossings” - is the side constraint.

Sasha puts a lot of emphasis for his moral skepticism case on “cultural variation in moral beliefs and practices.” But people can have identical moral principles without having the exact same specific implementations of that principle. It is no more surprising that different societies have somewhat different notions of immoral killing (murder) than different cultures have different conceptions of other aggression. Just as the ‘no murder principle’ depends on the cultural notions regarding extraordinary exceptions to derive specific meaning, the non-aggression principle relies on cultural notions about property for its specific meaning. There are all sorts of examples (in agriculture and technology as well as ethics) of different societies having the same principle but different particular practices. Age of consent for sex. What constitutes consensual sex. Harming others is “bad” but what counts as harm to others? (Libel, slander, blackmail, leering, cursing, IP infringement?) The New Guinea headhunter example of cultural differences about murder seems to support my position of a universal murder heuristic. Why? Because virtually every culture has the “it’s okay to kill enemies” exception, from primitive tribes to medieval monarchies to the USEmpire, from Eskimos to Incas, from Polynesian islanders to Vikings.

My contention is that one can discern principles - high level heuristics - which are almost universal among cultures, but there are variations due to environmental, cultural, and accidental differences. Basically I do not dispute any of Sasha’s examples, but I interpret them as normal variations in the human experience rather than a denial of morality. To make an analogy: I think technology is not subjective - that there is a connection between the real world and technology, and that technology can be empirically and rationally evaluated. What if a tech skeptic shows examples of how technology is different in different cultures. He shows that gunpowder was used in China for one thing, and in Europe for another. That crossbow technology was different in China and England. That architecture was different, and so on. Would that convince me that technology had no objective basis? No.

This wonderful debate has inspired me to think of an analogy. Let us think of morality as analogous to mathematics. Formally, mathematics has no basis in reality. It is totally analytic. One makes up definitions and axioms, and then tries to discover what they imply. However, as it turns out, mathematics has some very useful real-world applications. Algebra is used to manage accounts. Trigonometry is used for navigation and building. Calculus is used for engineering, physics, and so on. It happens that some branches of mathematics are very useful, and do reflect the real world quite well in some ways. Suppose that a carpenter is building a cupboard and needs a diagonal support. He uses his knowledge of trigonometry to cut a board to the right length. Just as someone uses a particular moral system to determine right conduct, the carpenter uses a particular math system, trigonometry, to determine the right length to cut the board.

Perhaps a well-meaning math skeptic would argue that the decision to cut the board is subjective, or culturally determined, merely an esoteric whim that has no basis in reality. Maybe he’d argue that for a right triangle a2+b2=c2 is subjective, since in Harappa they cut boards with an ivory knife, but in Mesopotamia they used a bronze saw. Sasha’s examples seem like this to someone who uses the normative definition of morality. In the analogy, the various schools of morality are equivalent to the various branches of mathematics. If you apply the correct theory of morality to the appropriate problem, or in the appropriate environment, it can be objectively useful, just as if you apply the correct branch of mathematics, it can be objectively useful.

Prinz wrote, “Any two randomly chosen cultures will have dramatic differences in moral values, and many of these differences ... have no basis in different factual beliefs. This suggests that basic moral values do not have a purely cognitive source.” His conclusion does not follow. It would follow only if all cognitive differences were the result of factual beliefs, but this is clearly not the case. There are cognitive differences due to factors such as heredity, experience, nutrition, mood, and social environment. Even within a culture, people have varying moral intuitions. The moral objectivist position does not hinge on uniformity, it hinges on the fact that there are some commonalities among humans, such as: we do a lot better when we don’t randomly kill each other, or steal each other’s stuff. The high-level theory is morality, the details are cultural and accidental. “Is there a universal prohibition against harm?” Yes. Do different cultures have different exceptions to the harm heuristic? Yes.

Two examples, however, needs an additional explanation - slavery and rape. Bridges and buildings and transportation have improved over time due to several things, such as advances in technology, the spread of technology, and increases in savings and capital. There has been evolution in construction technology and human living conditions. We now have indoor plumbing! In the same way, societies and cultures evolve morally.

This evolution is seen in the extent, the expansion, of in-group morality to larger groups, and in the elimination of exceptions to moral heuristics. Historically, the core moral heuristics we have been discussing typically started with the (hunter gatherer) in-group. At that time, it was permissible (if not downright good) to kill out-groups, other tribes, at least in regions characterized by scarcity of resources. Part of the moral evolution of man is this “globalization” of morality from in-group only to all of humanity.

The evolution of morality is seen by examining the extent of humanity deemed to have the status of moral agent, of personhood. Humankind may not have advanced much morally in other ways, but we have largely ended slavery. In the US, moral agency was extended to propertied males, then nearly every male, then later society evolved to extend personhood to women. Now some degree of personhood is commonly recognized for children. Herbert Spencer was one luminary of sociology who described the evolution of cultures and societies. He also warned against perverse policies which were likely to de-evolve man.

I see the reduction of slavery and rape (defined as non-consensual sex) as evidence of human moral evolution, not subjective morality. Tribal hunter-gatherer “inbred superfamilies” taking slaves, and patriarchal cultures where women were subhuman chattel, have largely disappeared. This evolution entailed the expansion of in-group morality to others. The group of full fledged moral agents, of top caste persons, typically grew from big in-group men who hunt well, to in-group men in general, to in-group men and selected out-group allied men, and so on, to eventually adding women and (to some degree) children. (Have there been any cultures that abolished slavery then reinstated it by cultural preference? Are there any cultures that re-legalized rape once it had been outlawed? I would conjecture that such cases of moral de-evolution are rare, and due to extraordinary events such as conquest or famine-level scarcity.)

For the purpose of this debate, there seems to be no difference between a moral heuristic and a moral principle. The issue under discussion is whether morality is objective - to some extent grounded on empirical evidence - or whether it is subjective (or meaningless,) not grounded on empirical evidence. For this discussion, it doesn’t matter if the moral proposition is a principle or heuristic - only whether it is based on objective considerations, on reality, or is subjective. The question of whether my conception of objective morality is “able to defend” NAP-libertarianism is irrelevant to the debate issue.[2]

Sasha’s parable about the single parent killing her child seems to favor my case for objective morality. When I read it, it seems almost a parody: Saying that morality has nothing to do with it - that instead the parent weighs guilt feelings, surveys cultural sentiment, estimates the probability of getting away with it, calculates whether the child can fight back, and on the basis of such factors, offs the kid. Here’s a better account: Using a tool of thinking called morality, she makes the decision that killing the kid is permissible. But is it tactically wise? Only then she considers whether she can get away with it, etc. I think this illustrates the difference in Sasha’s and my conception of morality: I see it as a decision-making tool for individuals, whereas he sees it as a collective sociological phenomena. He is correct that, reasoning from his descriptive perspective, one might predict how people in a given culture might act, on a macro level. But does this address morality as such, as the study of good conduct, or does it simply demonstrate that there are cultural variations on the general moral ideas common to mankind?

I recently saw a wonderful Intelligence Squared lecture video featuring the philosopher Daniel Dennett, entitled “Tools to Transform Our Thinking.”[3] He talked about “the Flynn effect” - the fact that people score better on IQ tests over time. For example, if people today took an IQ test from 1930, the average score would be about 130, not 100. Are people’s brain cells and nervous systems evolving at an incredible rate, making them smarter? Probably not. It is more likely that people are using thinking tools today that people did not use or know about earlier. Just as we are more productive producing documents, computers, and cars with newer, better tools, we are more productive thinkers using better tools. The thinking tools Dennett listed are: words, numbers, diagrams, maps, methods, and intuition pumps.

This suggests yet another framing of morality. Morality refers to a class of thinking tools - those used for conduct-related decisions. Moral systems, principles, and heuristics are tools for living successfully - living a good life. (I argued earlier that “good” in this context is not question-begging.) Different cultures have different words (languages,) different symbols for numbers, unique diagrams and maps, strange methods, and some bizarre intuition pumps by foreigners’ standards (like the Hopi’s following a wren out of the underworld myth), yet we don’t deny the validity of thinking tools. Similarly, the fact of differing customs and mores does not void the validity of moral tools, of morality. Just like the tools for general thinking, our moral thinking toolkit has made people “smarter” in some sense, not due to biological evolution, but due to better tools. E.g. Most folks don’t approve of slavery anymore. Self-sovereignty, non-aggression, and the categorical imperative (in the sense that a good moral principle applies to all) are examples of morality tools. Hobbes’ “state of nature” and Rawls’ “original position” are intuition pumps related to morality.

Sasha> “I do think these sorts of incentives often lead people to create forms of social order amongst themselves. So, if Bill wants to call an understanding of these kinds of incentives and heuristics morality, then I think I could possibly say I believe in morality in the sense that he means.”

We are pretty close to agreement, here. I would only add that, just as trigonometry is more than just a carpenter’s “incentives and heuristics” that help him build better, morality is more the the incentives and heuristics that help people live better. Trigonometry and morality are theories, bodies of consistent thought, about their subject matter, not just the raw facts and incentives related to their respective subjects. In other words, all those considerations Sasha gives for the single parent killing her kid are the data of morality, not morality as such. Morality is the theory that explains, illuminates, or guides how a person utilizes that data.

Sasha noted that most people, when making moral decisions, don’t explicitly think "This only applies because I want to live (a good life among other people.") I agree. Since virtually everyone wants to live, it is assumed. Similarly, when people speak, they don’t explicitly think, “I need a verb,” and when they walk, they generally don’t think, “I need to raise my right foot.” Sometimes the moral hypothetical “if the agent wants to live” becomes explicit, such as when discussing suicide bombers or, perhaps, junkies. Most people, other than mathematicians proving theorems, do not explicitly state their premises.

I like Sasha’s example asking which of two people, a rational skeptic or an irrational moralist, you would prefer to deal with. My answer would probably depend on whether the interaction is one time, or repeated. In a one-time transaction, I would almost certainly choose to deal with the guy who seems to sincerely hold a moral system. The other guy would almost certainly screw me if he could. He says so himself. But if the game were repeated, I might be more likely to choose the skeptic to deal with. I could if necessary use a tit-for-tat strategy and create a trustworthy “discipline of repeated transaction” where he is convinced that defecting would be against his interests. But wait! What if a third alternative presented itself: to deal with someone who not only behaved rationally in the conventional sense of Sasha’s skeptic, but also held a consistent rational moral system which included the values of honesty and non-aggression. It would be the best of both worlds - I’d deal with that guy over the other two, regardless of how long the game is. (And of course no one wants to deal with the fourth possibility, the irrational skeptic.)

Like Sasha, I’m thinking that our differences are mainly semantic. My notion of morality is philosophical and normative - the study of good and bad. Morality is concerned with the question, “What is good conduct?” Sasha’s notion of morality is sociological and descriptive - the study of behaviors. To him, morality is concerned with the question, “What do people and cultures actually believe about good and bad conduct?”

Sasha accurately restates my position “that people have reasons to follow a moral code based on the non-aggression principle, and that these reasons override reasons not to follow such a code, except in emergencies and other rare, and presumably transient, situations.” Sasha describes some of those reasons when discussing his moral skeptic above. It seems that we substantially agree on these reasons, and others cited in the ”Listen Egoist!” chapter of my book. We basically agree about how morality evolves. Is our only difference that I take abstractions from these considerations, extrapolate principles and heuristics, and call the resulting body of knowledge “morality?”

I sense that Sasha would like some extra magic, some extra oomph, for this to qualify as morality - something that impels people to respect it. So I have one more analogy - logic. Suppose that I tell one of those truth-teller and liar tribe brain-teasers to someone.[4] Perhaps the person doesn’t understand the solution at first. Just as one would expect this person to eventually figure it out due to his ‘logic faculty,’ we expect people to understand moral statements with their ‘moral faculty.’ Just as humans normally have a natural grasp of logical concepts like “and, or, not, and implies,” humans normally understand a range of moral concepts. Perhaps the same kind of thing that impels a person to agree with “(A and B) implies A” also impels a person to agree with “aggression is wrong.”

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[2] But it does bring up a good question: Even assuming there is a core morality that applies to all men, is this enough to boot-strap voluntaryism, i.e. libertarianism based on the non-aggression principle?

[3] Daniel Dennett, Intelligence Squared lecture "Tools to Transform Our Thinking."

[4] E.g. A traveler finds himself in a land inhabited by two tribes. Members of one tribe always tell the truth, while members of the other always lie. He comes to a fork in the road and has to ask a bystander which path he should take to reach a nearby village. The traveler has no way of finding out whether the bystander is a liar or a truth teller. What one question can he ask to determine which path to take?