What is Morality, anyway?

If science is the truth about reality, how can there be morality? Moral responsibility seems incompatible with science. Human bodies are physical objects like any other in the universe and their motions are governed by the same physical forces that cause the motions of all the other physical objects. No other physical objects in the universe are subject to something called “morality”. What makes humans so special? Isn’t the whole business of morality just a vestige of religious superstition? Humans are special because made in God’s image? Ridiculous!

One philosopher who bites the naturalism bullet hard is Alex Rosenberg. https://better-questions-than-answers.blog/2018/01/18/nihilism-that-could-be-exhausting/  Here is Rosenberg’s catechism for atheists:

Is there a god?  No.

What is the nature of reality?  What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe?  There is none.

What is the meaning of life?  Ditto.

Why am I here?  Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work?  Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal?  Are you kidding?

Is there free will?  Not a chance!

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?  There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral?  Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?  Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it?  Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose?  It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future?  Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.


Anything goes? Is that the ultimate truth? The point of any moral theory such as Tim Scanlon’s is to show how that ain’t necessarily so. It ain’t easy. It’s a philosophical problem. Science has nothing to say about it. 

These and other issues provoke a debate about the basics with BQTA contributors Rick Lenon and Carter Gillies. We pick up the discussion already in progress.


tumblr_p3lq1xrRdf1rhm7ijo1_1280.jpg Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still No. 33, 1979.jpg
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #33, 1979


RL: What is morality, anyway?  Again I am dodging the normative issue, but seems like morality at the level of culture is more determinative/specific/important, than what’s inside any particular individual. 

GNS: If you are dodging the normative issue, you are dodging the issue of “what is morality, anyway.”

At the level of culture, there is what people actually do. Some general descriptions of social organization no doubt determine what people actually do. Among Pakistanis, they hang blasphemers. Is that what’s important?

RL: Yes. We care about what people actually do.

GNS: But it won’t answer your question “what is morality, anyway”. It may answer your question, “what are the marvelous and various ways human societies organize themselves?”

You could ask the same question about social insects. What are the ways ants, bees and termites organize themselves? See E. O. Wilson. It really is quite marvelous. Pure Darwin. Do individual bees feel it would be immoral not to sacrifice themselves for the good of the hive? Do we think it would be immoral for bees not to act for the good of the tribe? 

Seems silly to talk about morality in insects.

What about the Pakistanis? Do we non-Pakistanis think it would be immoral for individual Pakistanis to be disloyal to their tribe? Hang blasphemers? What gives us the right to pass judgment on anything they do? Or they us?

RL: The Pakistanis want to hang a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.  They might be weighing the importance of emphasizing that penalty for blasphemy against the chance that maybe she’s not even guilty.  I can easily imagine that righteous rage arising spontaneously, in the context of a society where the existence of that law is being disputed.  The principle is far more important to them, than the fate of any one person. 

GNS: Let’s run a test case. I say “Allah does not exist!” Are the Pakistanis now full of righteous rage arising spontaneously? What if I said that in Pakistan, in violation of local religious law? They might hang me, but what gives them the moral right to hang me?

People do whatever they do. Nothing they do creates a moral obligation on me or you to do or not do anything. Nor even on the people themselves. If I’m in Pakistan, I might want to be discrete about my religious views, but that’s just to avoid hanging.    

Figuring out what creates a moral obligation on me or you is the normative problem. That’s the hard problem. Describing what various cultures consider to be morally obligated is the easy problem.

CG: Consider Bernard Williams in “The Human Prejudice” 

We indeed have reasons to listen to our sympathies and extend them, not only to wider groups of human beings, but into a concern for other animals, so far as they are in our power. This is already a human disposition. The OED definition of the word “humane” reads:

Marked by sympathy with and consideration for the needs and dis- tresses of others; feeling or showing compassion and tenderness to- wards human beings and the lower animals. . . .

We can act intelligibly from these concerns only if we see them as aspects of human life. It is not an accident or a limitation or a prejudice that we cannot care equally about all the suffering in the world: it is a condition of our existence and our sanity. Equally, it is not that the demands of the moral consciousness require us to leave human life altogether and then come back to regulate the distribution of concerns, including our own, by criteria derived from nowhere. We are surrounded by a world which we can regard with a very large range of reactions: wonder, joy, sympathy, disgust, horror. We can, being as we are, reflect on these reactions and modify them to some extent. We can think about how this human estate or settlement should be run, and about its impact on its surroundings. But it is a total illusion to think that this enterprise can be licensed in some respects and condemned in others by credentials that come from another source, a source that is not already involved in the peculiarities of the human enterprise. It is an irony that this illusion, even when it takes the form of rejecting so-called speciesism and the human prejudice, actually shares a structure with older illusions about there being a cosmic scale of importance in terms of which human beings should understand themselves. (in Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline Princeton UP 2006 p147)


If ethics are circumscribed by what we care about (as Bernard Williams contends in that marvelous quote) then it is the case that psychopaths only recognize themselves as morally relevant. They treat all other persons as not fitting the demands of morality any more than someone who eats meat in clear conscience considers cows part of a moral framework.

GNS: What, if anything, makes it the case that psychopaths are wrong to consider only themselves as morally relevant? Considering only yourself as morally relevant perhaps is no morality at all. Psychopaths are probably Moral Nihilists. They think there is no moral framework at all; there is only your interests and mine. Maybe they are right. Alex Rosenberg qualifies as a moral nihilist.   


image of Untitled Film Still #35
Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #35


RL: “There is no difference between right and wrong.”  Feels like that’s a response to the gaping maw awaiting, if we can’t get to normative.

GNS: Right. If we can’t get to normative, then there is no morality in the normative sense. Anything goes! Nothing imposes any moral duty on anyone. Gaping maw? Rosenberg calls his approach “nice nihilism”, though I don’t know what’s nice about it.

Rosenberg might be right or the gaping maw of Nihilism might be inconceivable.

RL: The philosopher on the mountain top, asked to say why this is right and that is wrong… tough problem, if he can’t establish premises.  The scholar down below, trying to understand what determines how people behave… much more easily approachable. 

GNS: Yes. Trying to understand what determines how people behave is the easy problem. Trying to understand what makes one action morally right and another wrong is the hard problem.

RL: But even relativism isn’t “no difference between right and wrong.”

GNS: Relativism and Absolutism agree that there is a difference between right and wrong. Both oppose nihilism and non-cognitivist approaches that say that moral statements have no truth value. Both agree that moral claims are sometimes true. The Absolutist would say that the moral claim “Slavery is wrong” has always been true and people just started to figure it out 200 years ago. The Relativist would say that moral claims are true or false only relative to a given culture. So 500 years ago the moral claim “Slavery is wrong” was false, but today it’s true.   

RL: And the study of what morality really is, as opposed to what it ought to be, does offer some interesting questions. 

GNS: Hold on. Confusion lurks. What you mean is that social psychology descriptions of practices people regard as moral offer some interesting questions, as per Jonathan Haight and Joshua Greene. True. Those interesting descriptions do not establish that any of the people described actually have any moral obligations whatsoever, though they think they do.

Does “what morality ought to be” refer to our philosophical theory—sometimes called a “meta-ethical theory”— about the ultimate nature of morality? Or do you mean to be referring to our judgments about the practices described: Pakistanis think they ought to hang a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, but their morality ought to be different.

I would call our meta-ethical theory “what morality really is” as opposed to what people think it is. People think morality is divine commandment, but really it’s…  what? This meta-ethical discussion we’re having is not trying to determine what specific actions are or are not moral. It’s about figuring out if morality in the normative sense exists at all. 


Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #64 1980


CG: As I said yesterday, we simply draw the lines differently to include or exclude the things and people we share the world with.

GNS: Quite true. Is that all there is to it? Simply a matter of how the lines are drawn? Nothing makes one way of drawing the lines morally better than any other? Then Rosenberg and the psychopaths are right.

CG: The idea of slavery overrides any idea of basic humanity and instead introduces the fundamental moral division between slaves and non-slaves. It becomes even easier to justify when slavery is imposed on a racial class and that class is already independently deemed ‘subhuman’. So one way we can condemn slavery is that it can be based on a false set of facts, where racial slavery is concerned. But perhaps that doesn’t target slavery itself as a practice…..

GNS: Why does slavery need a justification? I assume you mean a moral justification. Here’s the economic justification: it’s the cheapest way to produce sugar cane. Why isn’t that enough?

CG: I think we often imagine that condemning these practices (both slavery AND psychopathy) requires some objective vantage point that shows their inadequacy.

GNS: Yes. Condemnation of widespread and longstanding social practices requires some justification beyond “we don’t like it”.

CG: We imagine there are objective facts (moral facts) that we can in all cases appeal to. 

GNS: Both of you routinely condemn social practices like slavery, stoning gays, etc. And of course, you are quite right to do so. However, you then turn around and eliminate the justification for doing it. You say that objective moral facts are only in our imagination. You might be right about that! However, you can’t have it both ways.

J. L. Mackie argued that the whole idea of objective moral facts is nonsense. That would make all first order moral claims— such as slavery is wrong, or slavery is not wrong— false. 

CG: What seems more the case is that we refuse to accept the lines these others are drawing. We might insist that ALL humans deserve to be treated equally, all sentient beings (if we are also vegetarians), that the environment itself needs moral protection, etc.

GNS: Perhaps “we” here means just the three of us, or our social group? We might indeed insist on a variety of moral principles. Are we saying that our moral principles are not objective and universal, but true only relative to our group. Would that give us the right to condemn other groups or only to condemn violators within our group?

CG: We do not condemn psychopaths and slavery from indisputable objective grounds.

GNS: This is exactly what people do, or imagine they are doing. Us included.

CG: It always comes down to what and who we care about, and if some other folks don’t include the things we see as morally relevant, then we have our own reasons for disputing their take on moral status. Because we draw the lines in a different way. What they are doing simply makes no SENSE in our way of doing things.

GNS: This seems like a good description of moral relativism. They draw the lines one way. We draw the lines in a different way. Is that all there is to it? Nothing makes some lines better than others? So slavery is OK for them, but not for us, and that’s just a fact about how the lines got drawn.

I’m not sure this is even relativism. It might be emotivism or some other version of non-cognitivism: moral claims have no truth value whatsoever. They are simply expressions of our feelings, of things we care about. We say, Slavery yuk! Others care about different things: Slavery yay! That’s all there is to it. The conflict between our statements condemning slavery and those of 200 years ago is only apparent. In reality, the statements do not conflict because they have no truth value. The changing statements merely show changes in what people care about. As a matter of historical fact, statements and feelings about slavery have changed over the last 200 years.

CG: But slavery just doesn’t make sense to me. Believing in the appropriateness of slavery is incomprehensible to me.

GNS: Incomprehensible? What almost everyone believed for thousands of years? No, it isn’t. Hey, it’s a cheap way to produce sugar cane, and Europe just recently (17th century) has developed a sweet-tooth. Making slavery more palatable: Africans are humans too! So let’s be nice to them. Good food, shelter and some medical care. All we are eliminating is their free will to do something other than grow cane. Did I mention rum?

Besides, what difference does it make whether it’s comprehensible to us or not?

Or maybe the refutation of Nihilism is its incomprehensibility. What’s inconceivable could provide the “assumed premises” Rick is looking for.


Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #7, 1978. Profoundly ambiguous.


Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #48, 1979


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