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Peter Singer and effective altruism – a critique

October 23, 2014

Recently I attended a lecture delivered by Peter Singer on, ‘Ethics, Utilitarianism and Effective Altruism’. This event was jointly hosted between the University of Melbourne Secular Society and Melbourne University Philosophy Community. It was a privilege to attend this presentation by an immense authority on this topic. Peter Singer demonstrated mastery of his field and great depth of reading, reflection and thought. He also conducted himself with great elegance and humility. He was gracious, thoughtful respectful and gave proper time to answer as many questions as possible.

Yet for all Singer’s graciousness and authority, the ethical framework he outlined was extremely disappointing. His ethic ‘effective altruism’ ended up being subjective, impractical, unjust and guilt-inducing!

Ethics defined objectively: what we ought to do.

Singer opened with an undisputed definition of ethics as ‘what we ought to do’. He then asked whether we could get ever get an objective answer to that question. After entertaining suggestions that ethical judgements were simply a matter of taste he outlined his own ethical system which he claimed was truly ‘objective’.

Singer’s ethic has been heavily influenced by British utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick (who followed the more famous Bentham and Mill). Sidgwick started with principles of philosophy which he claimed were rationally self-evident. From these principles he proposed that ‘everyone’s good/interest counts as much as everybody else’ concluding that as rational beings we need to promote the greatest good we can.

Unfortunately Singer did not ground or justify this claim ‘objectively’. Why does everyone’s good/interest count? How can this be justified objectively?

To these questions Singer (and Sidgwick) asserted that these principles were ‘self-evident’ when we put aside ‘distorting influences’. Yet it was unclear who determines the extent of a ‘distorting’ influence – distortion depends very much on perspective. Hence it’s unclear how these philosophical principles can be justifiably ‘self-evident’. This problem was illustrated by the final question of the event where the questioner proposed that vegetarianism was self-evidentially true. Singer didn’t dispute this claim, yet it is unclear how one can ‘rationally’ assert that vegetarianism is ‘self-evidentially true’ – the local butcher might disagree.

Furthermore Singer (and Sidgwick’s) assumption of the equality and dignity of all people, and then the further assumption that we must seek to maximise their well-being, all fail to be objectively self-evident. These assumptions would certainly not be universally shared by all throughout history. It is doubtful that the average Hindu under the influence of the caste system would claim the equality of humanity as obviously ‘self-evident’. These assumptions have a distinctly Christian feel, where every person is made in the ‘image of God’, rather than self-evident philosophical principles.

Thus the basis for Singer’s ‘objective’ ethic is shaky at best.

The ethic: utilitarianism – the good consequences

Singer then outlined Sigdwick’s philosophy as pointing in a utilitarian direction where the ‘good’ and the ‘right’ are the best consequences. Singer admitted that he didn’t think that anything is intrinsically and always wrong, for example, breaking a promise, killing an innocent human and certain sexual acts like incest are not always wrong with respect to consequences. This concession that some things are not always ‘intrinsically and always wrong’ tends to undermine the claim of an ‘objective’ ethic.

Singer then posed a crucially difficult question – what are ‘better’ consequences? And his answer was straightforward, ‘welfare and well-being of the action’. He posed this welfare and well-being in terms of ‘suffering, pain and happiness’. Hence his diagnostic question which determines the ‘better’ consequences becomes ‘which [produces] the greatest net surplus of happiness?’

Singer recognised the difficulty in accurately determining outcomes because consequences are uncertain. To overcome this he suggested we should maximise the ‘expected value’ of our actions and then discount by probabilities. This could be reduced to a ‘rule’, and ‘when uncertain we should use a rule of thumb’.

At this point in the lecture Singer had outlined the thrust of his ethical framework and I confess I was a little stunned. With all Peter Singer’s great philosophical thinking, reading and experience, his ethic was a raw, naked, unashamed consequentialism! I was stunned because the problems and weaknesses of consequentialism are legion and are such that they render it almost impossible to adopt as an overarching ethical framework.

I have outlined many of the weaknesses of consequentialism whilst engaging Sam Harris’ ethical treatise The Moral Landscape. In the afterward of The Moral Landscape, Harris summarises the key objections to his consequentialist ethic as the problems of value (what is well-being), measurement (how do we measure well-being) and persuasion (why should I forego my personal well-being for the greater good)? Whilst Singer made a more robust case than Harris, each of these problems remain in Singer’s ethic and unfortunately no satisfactory solution exists.

Furthermore Singer’s ethical system justifies injustice. This issue was raised during question time to which Singer’s response was that we must ‘swallow the consequences’. Singer used one example, but I felt he conceded the broader ‘justice’ point. Thus at times murdering an innocent man ‘for the greater good’ can be justified. Injustice is a natural conclusion in a consequentialist system.

Effective altruism: a new movement

Unperturbed by these weaknesses Singer pressed on to outline effective altruism, which was a new movement based on a consequentialist ethic. At its core effective altruism is ‘to do the most good we can and we ought to use reason and draw on evidence to assess the options’. Singer proposed that the most good we could do involved saving lives of those in extreme poverty. This would maximise overall utility and promoting the greatest good.

However Singer conceded that it was unrealistic to do this at every moment in our lives. Unfortunately he proceeded to water down the ethic to ‘doing the most good, some of the time with some of our resources’. Rather than being a movement of ‘saints’ Singer proposed that praise be given to those ‘heading in the right direction’. Singer claimed that people can be ethical altruists even if they’re not doing it all the time. He offered a guide of 10% of income given away to define when a person ‘became’ an ethical altruist.

Ethical altruism is justified hypocrisy or not objective (or maybe both!)

I found this proposal most unsatisfactory. Singer’s overall ethic is worthy in its goal to maximise the good of the poor in the world, but unfortunately through his concession, his ethic falls to pieces. He demonstrates that his ethic is either justified hypocrisy or not objective or perhaps both at the same time!

The key problem is that Singer asserts that his ethic is based on ‘objective’ principles. To be truly objective the maxim, ‘to do the most good we can’ would be binding on all people regardless of whether we believe it or not. Therefore at any point if one is not ‘doing the most good we can’ we are actually acting immorally!

Hence justifying simply ‘moving in the right direction’ is inconsistent because it means that you don’t actually need to ‘do the most good we can’. The ethic is reduced to, ‘do the most good you feel you’re able to afford’, which is far less inspiring or objective. To justify inconsistency is tantamount to hypocrisy. i.e. we are aware that a binding moral framework exists, but instead we choose to justify not following it. The 10% rule also betrays a weakness of atheistic ethics – that it is based on the arbitrary determination of the will of humans. Why choose 10% of income? Why not 9% or 15%? Surely in a rich developed world with high disposable income something like 30% or 40% of income would be more appropriate? There is no ‘objective’ basis for choosing this number, it is merely arbitrary.

The atheist kill-joy: ethical altruism leads to guilt-ridden asceticism

The justified hypocrisy notwithstanding, the ethical altruism ethic is also impractical and fails to halt a slide to asceticism.

If Singer and the effective altruism ethic is correct, then then virtually every economic, social and moral choice made in Australia today is ‘immoral’. This is because when these decisions are compared with saving lives of people in extreme poverty then on the simple consequentialist metric outlined by Singer, saving lives of those in extreme will always ‘win’ i.e. they will always be morally preferable. Therefore when posed with the question, ‘should we build a new road in Melbourne? The answer under effective altruism will be ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’. Should I eat a chocolate cake on my birthday? ‘no, because this money could save lives of people in extreme poverty’ Should we build a new school auditorium? Should we treat an injured knee? Should I treat my friend’s cancer? The answer to all these questions is the same – ‘no, because this could save lives of people in extreme poverty’.

Moreover other decisions which would have enormously beneficial outcomes for the extreme poor are also rendered ‘immoral’. For example this ethical framework would preclude funding Ebola virus research because the net ‘utility’ of lives saved in developing countries would be greater by providing Malaria nets or immunisation compared with lives saved through Ebola research.

Hence every decision must be reduced to its impact against the global poor. This renders it an impossible ethic to live by because it condemns virtually every decision that doesn’t involve saving lives in the developing world as ‘immoral’. In this ethical framework there is nothing to avoid the slide into a guilt-ridden (how can I ever enjoy chocolate again?) asceticism. Nothing beyond the basics could ever be enjoyed because they would be declared objectively ‘immoral’.

Furthermore there is often accused by atheists that it is more virtuous to do an ethical act out of freedom rather than because you are commanded. Yet the ethical altruism makes it an ethical command to do live like this, despite the outcome. Ironically it’s usually atheists who accuse God of being a cosmic kill-joy!

Effective altruism and the consequentialist ethic of Peter Singer reduces ethics to a kind of communist race to the communal bottom. Everyone is equal and if one person has utility above the lowest, then it becomes unethical. The only difference between communism and Singer’s ethic is that Singer doesn’t have a mandate for the state to enforce this ethic (yet!?).

Valid questions – just not objective

I’m not suggesting for a minute that questions of weighing up decision in comparison with the global poor are not valid questions. Indeed these questions are often not weighed thoughtfully or carefully enough. We should consider living simply so others can simply live. My point is that given the claim of the objectivity of this particular ethical system it becomes immoral to do anything which does not save lives of those in extreme poverty.

The Christian ethic urges the same result with more freedom and less guilt

So whilst I applaud the basic sense of ethical altruism, I think that the Christian ethic urges the same result but with far more freedom and less guilt.

The Christian ethic contains moral imperatives to love our neighbour and to be generous (these moral imperatives are based in the character and purposes of an eternal God and can be objectively grounded). Yet the imperatives also broadens the concept of ‘neighbour’ to include not just our global neighbours, but also our local ones, meaning we can build a school hall to the betterment of our local society and love our neighbours with cancer and perform research to help them. Therefore caring for the ‘good’ of our neighbours is achieved through both the Christian ethic and consequentialism, but the Christian ethic is more nuanced and sophisticated.

Contrary to the consequentialist ethical altruism ethic, Christianity simultaneously affirms the goodness of all things. All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4). This means I can enjoy a chocolate cake! The pleasures and gifts of this world can be enjoyed as gifts of a generous God.

Now a tension is created between receiving all things with thanksgiving and caring for others. Yet the slide into overindulgent selfishness is avoided by reminders that the Christian not think of themselves too highly, and to consider others more valuable.

Overall, the Christian believer is encouraged to live the ‘wise’ life. This is where decisions are made in a holistic sense for the betterment of self, family, the poor and the society. For example consider the wise woman of Proverbs 31 who provides for her family, opens her arms to the poor and is respected in the city. The woman is commended on her thrift, wisdom and generosity. This woman is a model of holistic Christian ethics. The Christian ethical framework of love your neighbour with humble wisdom is a liberating ethic which is far more robust and practical.

Yet most significantly the Christian ethic offers forgiveness for failure and selfishness. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that there is now no condemnation for selfishness and inconsistency to those in Christ. This doesn’t mean that inconsistency can be justified – Jesus’ was caustic towards the religious leaders who attempted to justify their hypocrisy – instead in face of failure, the Christian repents, knowing that because of his love, God freely forgives us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Indeed love is absent from the brutal consequentialist system advocated by Singer.

There is no forgiveness in ethical altruism, if you eat a chocolate for yourself, you are condemned under the objective guilt of knowing that lives could have been saved elsewhere in the world. There is no solution to the guilt of failure or of self-indulgence.

Whilst I commend the goals of ethical altruism it fails in attempting to provide an objective and liveable ethical framework. Ethical altruism has some helpful contributions to make in assessing how scarce resources be allocated, but my criticisms would be less savage if Singer didn’t claim it as an ‘objective’ system. If consequentialism and ethical altruism is objective then we are all condemned under a brutal loveless, ethical system which will lead to social improvement in the developing world but at the cost of an ascetic guilt-ridden hypocrisy.


From → Comment, Ethics

  1. ‘Harris summarises the key objections to his consequentialist ethic as the problems of value (what is well-being), measurement (how do we measure well-being) and persuasion (why should I forego my personal well-being for the greater good)? ‘

    Economists have the same problem.

    They talk about ‘goods’. What ‘goods’ and ‘services’ does an economy produce?

    But, of course, they can’t measure if a ‘good’ is really a good thing.

    A car is a ‘good’, but how can you objectively say it is a good thing to own a car?

    Without a god to ground economics, economists are unable to justify economics. They can’t say what ‘goods’ are, even though they talk about them all the time.

    But, of course, a Christian can simply state that a car is a gift from God. The ‘goods’ they have (computers, Iphones, central heating etc) are gifts from God. ‘ All good things are to be seen as gifts of God and to be received with thanksgiving ‘

    • I don’t think economists are trying to say that it is a good thing to own a ‘good’. Aren’t there two ways of using ‘good’ here?

  2. Are morals objective? Well, it all depends what you mean by “objective”. If you mean that they exist in the same way that gravity exists, that rape would still be wrong even if there were no beings capable of giving or refusing consent to sex or of understanding the difference between consensual and forced sex, then no, I don’t believe that there are any objective morals.

    But neither do I believe that morality is subjective, if by subjective you mean that it’s all a matter of individual opinion.

    The part which interested me most in your OP was where you say:
    “The Christian ethic contains moral imperatives to love our neighbour and to be generous (these moral imperatives are based in the character and purposes of an eternal God and can be objectively grounded).”
    How are they “objectively grounded”? Simply because they are based on the character and purposes of an enteral God? What has that to do with it? Being based on God’s character can only confer some sort of objectivity if God’s character is in fact, well, “good”. And we can only determine that if we have some standard against which to measure God’s character which is independent of him. And if we have that, then we don’t need God to “make” actions good or bad, just the standard itself. Of course, we are very much in Euthyphro country here.

    If I may return to Steve’s point, with another example: medicine seeks the good of the patient. What is “the good of the patient” cannot itself be objectively proved but we all start with some basic assumptions that it will include the patient’s physical and mental comfort, preserving their bodily integrity and not shortening their life. Sometimes these goals are in conflict. Preserving bodily integrity may not be consistent with comfort. Comfort may not be consistent with prolonging life and so on. Health care professionals may disagree amongst themselves and sometimes with the patients as to which of the goals should take priority. But that does not mean that you write off medicine as being subjective or that you need to invoke a God of medicine to provide it with objectivity.

    Morality can present the similar conundrums as we try to reconcile the various goals (reducing suffering, justice, saving life etc) when they conflict.

    You will probably be familiar with Philippa Foot’s “Trolley Bus” thought experiment and its many variants. For anyone who isn’t here is a link:
    What is the right answer to this dilemma or its variants? Is there a “right” answer? If there is, does God help you to decide what that answer is? If so, how? And whether he actually helps or not, how does his existence “make” one answer right and the rest wrong?

    • Frances, Thanks for your comments and thoughtful reflections (I do apologise for the delay in responding, I’m working harder at getting to comments in a more timely manner).

      I think your question is a good one – when I mean objective, I do mean the same way that gravity exists – i.e. the ‘value’ is there regardless of whether we want it or not. But the only problem is that by rejecting objectivity, I can’t see how you can avoid the slide into subjectivity. How is morality then ‘not’ all a matter of individual opinion?

      I hope I’ve understood your comment correctly in terms of how the Christian values are objectively ‘grounded’ – but my thoughts are that objective morality is ‘stitched’ into the fabric of the universe because they are embedded in a creation which is an extension of the character of eternal God. Hence notions of Good are in fact extensions of God’s character. I’ve written something on the Euthyphro dilemma here:

      I think the issues of medicine are helpful and I agree that it is ambiguous what is seeking the ‘good’ of the patient. But I’m also not sure that this invalidates an ‘objective’ moral framework because there are a number of moral imperatives involved in seeking the ‘good’ of the patient. e.g. absolute dignity and value of the patient regardless of who they are, not to take the life of the patient (hence touching on the issue of euthanasia etc). So I don’t think that I’m proposing that an objective moral framework means that every moral decision we make has an objective answer. I’m proposing that there are objective moral principles from which we build a moral ‘web’ and help us adjudicate difficult moral questions – like the trolley problem – which are difficult for any ethicist. I would actually suggest that the trolley problem poses a bigger problem for the atheist consequentialist (e.g. Sam Harris, Peter Singer) because it demonstrates the measurement problem – i.e. how do we measure well-being?

      I’m not sure I’ve directly answered your questions, but hopefully my response creates a bit of context and a framework in which to answer the questions you pose. Do you want to come back at me and challenge/clarify/question? Thanks for your comment.

  3. Hi Rob.

    I think we’re getting a good foundation for an interesting discussion here.

    There is one respect in which I think you’ve misunderstood my position, but that’s my fault for not being clear enough. I do believe in objective morality. I believe that certain concepts, of which morality is just one, can only exist when they are created by concept-forming beings (of which the only known examples are humans). But they are still objective. I don’t normally like it when people try to argue by just linking to what somebody else has written, but here is a link to an article which expresses what I mean so well that it would just be foolishness on my part to sit here trying to re-invent the wheel:

    As for the Euthyphro question, the problem with your proposed solution is that it makes the statement “God is good” a merely circular observation, no more helpful than telling someone who asks what sort of music Led Zepplin play (to use an age-giving-away example) that they play the sort of music that people who are fans of Led Zep’s music like. For us to understand the comment “God is good” as telling us something about God, it is absolutely essential that we have some concept of what is good which is independent of God so that we can measure him against it.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you ask how we measure well-being. As I said, we start with some assumptions which are basic and we work from there. How do *you* measure well-being? And how does belief in God resolve the problematic conflicts between various aspects of that concept, which I think we both agree can arise whatever one’s world view?



    • Hi Frances,

      Thanks for your comments and I’m glad we’re getting into an interesting discussion (this is the purpose of the blog – I hope we can both learn something from our exchange!).

      Thanks for your clarification over ‘objectivity’, you are forgiven in your lack of perspicuity (don’t worry, you’re not along in that boat).

      Thanks for the link to that article, it was very interesting. I found myself agreeing in large parts with what it was talking about (particularly in its critique of idealism). It also helpfully distinguishes between objective and subjective i.e. subjective does not simply equal ‘feelings’. Yet I felt for all the strengths of the article, it proceeds via a false analogy and fails to overcome the ‘is-ought dilemma’ (which I assume you’re familiar with). The false analogy is that because we can make claims about ‘reality’ we can also make claims about ‘morality’, but unfortunately we just can’t. The comments on abortion were interesting (and I was impressed at the optimism of the author) when she wrote: “The task is to reason our way to consensus, and most philosophers assume we are alike enough and reason similarly enough that some arguments will prove more compelling than others.” But this all depends on what assumptions you make. We can’t reason our way to consensus when we can’t agree on the foundations. This is where without an objective metaphysical foundation, I can’t see how morality cannot be other than metaphysically subjective.

      I’m intrigued how you think that the ‘is-ought’ dilemma can be bridged?

      Regarding Euthyphro, maybe it does make the statement ‘God is good’ circular, but that then solves the ‘dilemma’ does it not? Why is it essential to have some concept of good independent of God? What if he ‘made’ the good? (as per my solution).

      I agree with your question on how to measure well-being, working from some assumptions is good, but then which assumptions? And then how do we adjudicate between outcomes that are not measurable? I think this is deeply problematic (and the fundamental problem with any consequentialist ethical system).

      Thanks for making me pause and think (this comment has taken a lot longer to respond to than most), but I feel enriched in doing so (perhaps in an epistemologically subjective way 😉


  4. Hi, Rob.

    I note with interest that in your article the only significant difference between ethical altruism and Christian morality is the “feel good” factor.

    You warn that “the ethical altruism ethic is (also) impractical and fails to halt a slide to asceticism.” Since Christianity has a 2,000 year head-start on ethical altruism, we don’t have to guess what kind of slippery slopes it has provided for sliding into all kinds of extremes, including asceticism.
    Almost all the criticisms you level against ethical altruism have also been made about Christianity. The difference being that with Christianity we have been able to see what actually happens, instead of just theorising.

    You are concerned that ethical altruism “renders it an impossible ethic to live by because it condemns virtually every decision that doesn’t involve saving lives in the developing world as ‘immoral’.”
    Christianity proposes an equally impossible ethic, teaching that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And you’re concerned about feeling guilty?

    The overarching framework that Christianity teaches has been expressed by Ignatius of Loyola in the introduction to his “Spiritual Exercises” thus:
    “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
    And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in pursuing the end for which he is created.
    From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
    For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”

    How far away are we, here, from your “slide to asceticism”?

    The Westminster Shorter catechism expresses more or less the same thing,
    Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
    A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

    What then, is your trick for avoiding the discomforts of guilt and hypocrisy, and halting the slide into asceticism? ? God’s forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice, of course. In theory that beats the heck out of SSSRIs. But ultimately your comparison between these two ethical systems rests on how to handle the uncomfortable feelings engendered by failure.
    This subject touches me personally because the life-style I have chosen to adopt has many of the marks of neurotic asceticism. One of the things I have noticed about feeding the poor is that a hot meal tastes exactly the same to a hungry homeless person, whether it is served by an atheist or a Christian. No-one has ever refused a meal saying, “God, this tastes awful. Are you an ethical altruist or what?”
    Tragically, the message I take away from your article is that you seem to measure the superiority of your Christian system of ethics by the extent of your personal comfort. The (atheist) ethical altruist will simply count the number of hungry mouths that have been fed.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for your comment and welcome to this blog (I think this is your first comment). I would dispute that the only difference between ethical altruism and Christianity is the ‘feel good’ factor – I would argue that there is a real objective basis to the Christian ethic, whereas the objective basis to ethical altruism is missing. That was one of the key points of the article.

      I agree with your comments about the slide to asceticism, and there were many Christians who practised the ascetic life. I commend them for their devotion, but would also disagree with their view on the material world.

      I’m a little puzzled about your comment “Christianity proposes an equally impossible ethic, teaching that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And you’re concerned about feeling guilty?” – I said in the post that there is a solution to the guilt – i.e. Christ’s sacrifice (which you mention later, hence I’m a little puzzled why you raise it here?!). I’m trying to tease out what your actual objection is here? My comparison is deeper than simply failure, it is that ethical altruism isn’t objective.

      I’m sorry that you feel that my article was simply about personal comfort. I recognised that might be a weakness in the article and certainly wasn’t my intention (and I did commend ethical altruism for its goals), but my point was deeper to demonstrate that it is unliveable and that it isn’t ‘objective’ (which I thought I said). If Singer didn’t make the claim to ‘objectivity’, then my critique wouldn’t have been so scathing (which again, I thought I said).

      What do you make of the claim of the ‘objectivity’ of ethical altruism? And how do you overcome hypocrisy (which seems to be built into the system)? Also, just wondering what you make of all the many many Christian organisations helping the poor around the world?

      Thanks for commenting. Most interesting.


  5. Your last question would seem to indicate that you and I are on the same page, though my answer will necessarily be disappointingly trite. You ask me what I make of all the many many (sic) Christian organisations helping the poor around the world? Well, actually, exactly the same as what I make of all the many many non-Christian organisations helping the poor around the world.
    I observe that there are millions dying of hunger and relatively fewer well-fed people actually putting food into hungry mouths. Some do it for Christ, and others just do it for the hungry.
    So what?
    In the last analysis, I think that both you and Peter Singer are engaged in similar endeavours whose goal is to incite people to help the hungry. Equally, you both make the same erroneous claim of objectivity. I presume that this is done in the belief that it will encourage people to move through “is” and “ought” to “action”. As you point out, Singer fails in arguing the objectivity of ethical altruism. Similarly, you, and every other Christian apologist, have failed to argue the objectivity of God.
    If we took the time to understand the psychological and emotional factors involved in moving individuals from “ought” to action, we would find that intellectual claims to objectivity play a very insignificant role.
    You are apparently offended by the lovelessness of ethical altruism. Does that mean that you need to put “love” through the LHC of philosophical arguments in order to find traces of objectivity? I presume not.

    You ask how one can overcome built-in hypocrisy. I can’t answer that, because I have noticed that people dying of hunger couldn’t care less. They just want food, not noble ideals.

    • Thanks for the comment Richard. At one level I think you’re right that we can dismiss motivation. It’s worth feeding hungry mouths regardless of the philosophy motivating it. Yet at another level, we need to examine why we think feeding hungry mouths are worthwhile in the first place? This is where there ethical foundations become crucial. We can’t just assume that we should because not all philosophies in history do accept that we should feed the poor of the world. So, why should we feed the poor?

      Thanks for identifying the failure of arguing the objectivty of ethical altruism. Just clarifying how I have not argued the objectivity of God?

      I’m not necessarily ‘offended’ by the lovelessness of ethical altruism, it’s an observation that love fails to feature in it at all. Do you think that love should feature in an ethic at all?
      Thanks for your very interesting comments.

  6. Rob,

    When you say “The false analogy is that because we can make claims about ‘reality’ we can also make claims about ‘morality’, but unfortunately we just can’t” there are two points I’d like to make about that:
    1. I don’t think that it *is* an analogy. To say that x is like y is not necessarily to draw an analogy between x and y. It may mean that x is indistinguishable from y in respect of what is under discussion. If I say that women are like men in wanting career fulfilment, I am not saying that they are analogous to men, but that they are, in that way, exactly like men. LaFave is not saying that morality is comparable to real stuff such as headaches. She is saying that morality IS real stuff. But it is real only because humans exist who can think in these terms. If humans disappeared tonight, there would be no more morality (subject to there being some sentient intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe.)
    2. By contrasting “morality” with “reality” you now appear yourself to have abandoned the claim that morality is real. But wasn’t that your whole point?
    I have the feeling I may not have fully understood you here, so put me right if I’ve mis-represented you.

    You think that there exist underlying basic principles of morality, and if we apply them they will point us in the direction of of the right moral answer. I think exactly the same. The is-ought problem is resolved by an analytical bridge which uses these underlying principles. So:
    1. We ought to do what is (morally) good.
    2. It is morally good to alleviate the suffering of others (analytical bridge).
    3. By feeding the hungry we will alleviate the suffering of others.
    4. Therefore we ought to feed the hungry.

    1 is true by definition.
    2 is self-evident ( in the same way that it is self-evident that it is medically good to preserve a patient’s bodily integrity are far as possible, all other things being equal).
    3 is observably true.
    4 is the conclusion which we reach from 1-3.

    But how do you resolve the is-ought problem? The claim that God tells us to do x, therefore we ought to do it is every bit as much of an is-ought move as any naturalistic argument for morality.

    The God=good=God response to Euthyphro doesn’t solve it, in my view. It just pushes it back a step. If God made the good, is it good because he made it so? Or did he make it so because it is good?

    When you say that God is good, what does that actually mean? Does it convey any information about either God or goodness? If so, what?

    • I tried responding to this last night, but frustratingly lost the comment! I have a couple of responses:

      1. I apologise, I was misleading. I was trying to find a word to use and I used the wrong one which confused ‘reality’ with ‘material reality’. i.e. to distinguish the material world from the moral world. So I do think that morality is real, just not material – which is where the is/ought distinction arises. So my apologies for using the wrong word (I hope your punishment of me won’t be too severe 😉

      2. I find your comment about if humans disappeared there would be no more morality intriguing because I thought that was the whole point of our disagreement i.e. I am asserting that morality would not disappear if there were no more humans – morality is ‘stitched’ into the fabric of reality meaning that there is an objective morality ‘out there’. Yet it seems that if morality would disappear with humans then it becomes subjective i.e. subject to the determination of people.

      3. I would disagree with your second statement in formulating a moral framework your analytical bridge i.e. that some things are self-evident. This is crucial part of your argument and I feel fallacious. This was my criticism of Singer, i.e. I don’t think we can say that any moral statement is ‘self evident’. Self evidence depends on perspective (and other assumptions).

      4. In terms of the goodness of God and the Euthyphro ‘solution’. I think it does solve it because those question are both ‘yes’ because they are connected. i.e. God makes the good as an expression of his character – hence it’s good because it is intertwined with him and creation. So your other question is an excellent one ie. about what is the good (and something I’ll note for another blog post), but I think goodness is things like, ‘love’, patience, kindness, faithfulness, self control. How would you define the ‘good’?

      Thanks for some really great questions and I hope that my answers have treated them with the respect they deserve.

      Kind regards,

      • Rob,

        Thank you for your reply.

        I too think that morality is real, but not material. Just as I think love, and joy and anger are real but not material. However, they can exist only because there exist material, sentient, intelligent beings who feel and think in this way. But that doesn’t make the emotions material, any more than it makes the data on my computer material because it could not exist without the material hardware of the computer.

        The fact that something can be objectively true and yet entirely dependent for its existence and truth on the existence of subjective beings was kind of the point of the Sandy LaFave link I sent you. I don’t accept that things can only be objective if they are independent of human existence. Take language, for instance. When Humpty Dumpty used the word “glory” to mean “a nice knock-down argument” is it objectively true that his use of the word was incorrect? If it is true, who or what makes it true? If humans disappeared tomorrow the word itself and any truth about its correct usage would disappear along with them. But still you would not hesitate to correct your child if they used the word as Humpty Dumpty did, telling them “that’s wrong.”

        Is it just moral truths that you think cannot be self-evident? Suppose you went into hospital to have an in-growing toenail operated on and woke up to find that your leg had been amputated. What if the surgeon said to you:
        “The operation was to cure the in-growing toenail and I’ve done that! I suppose I might have done it without removing your entire leg. Some people would say that would have been self-evidently a better option. But it’s all a matter of opinion isn’t it? Who’s to say which is better? It just depends on your perspective (and other assumptions.)”
        What would you say to them?

        I agree that love, kindness etc are all good. But why can’t they be good in their own right? Why do you need God to “make” them good? Is there any conceivable world in which they could be anything other than good?

  7. Rob,
    Could I ask you to clear up a few points that you seem to imply without actually using the word “ought”?
    You say, “We can’t reason our way to consensus when we can’t agree on the foundations. This is where without an objective metaphysical foundation, I can’t see how morality cannot be other than metaphysically subjective.”
    Are you saying that we ought to reason our way to consensus? If so, why?
    You then seem to appeal to “an objective metaphysical foundation” as a sine qua non for reasoning our way to consensus. The problem here is that there is an astonishing variety of claims concerning the nature of this “objective metaphysical foundation”.
    This leads me to think that your first sentence should read, “We can’t reason our way to consensus when we can’t agree on our (supposedly) objective metaphysical foundations.”
    The visible absence of consensus of metaphysical foundations indicates, to me, that claims to metaphysical objectivity are as varied, and as arbitrary as those that emerge from the much-maligned metaphysical subjectivity.
    Can consensus ever be anything other than the water of subjectivity finding its own level? A sort of super-club of similar ideas?
    Why would I choose to join the Ethical Altruists Club rather than the Moral Realists Club? The Catholic Church rather than the Reformed Evangelical Church?
    It seems to me that the choice of one set of “foundations” rather than another is arrived at by a form of apparent reasoning that gels into a certain internal coherence, but which remains invariably subjective.
    Or as André Malraux might have called it, La Condition Humaine.
    The eternal game of “oughts” and crosses.

  8. On the point of “self evidence”, I think that the most self-evident feature of humanity is that all people are NOT equal.

    On the all the most obvious characteristics, their physical prowess, intellectual capability, artistic sensibilities, capacity for empathy, etc., people occupy different positions on a very long scale. Objectively, the value of the contributions of a person to society will vary wildly between different individuals.

    The concept that people are all of equal value is self-evidently false, in any sense other than the belief that all are equally made in the image of God and equally valued by God.

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