Michael Shermer on moral philosophy, second round

nonsense on stilts fishSkeptic Michael Shermer recently published a column in Scientific American entitled “Does the philosophy of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ have any merit?” I found it a confused piece on moral philosophy, and since I agree with my friend Spider-Man, that with great power comes great responsibility, I was troubled by Michel’s failure toward the broad public of that august magazine. So I wrote a rather snarky response. Shermer has in turn keyboarded a reply to me, entitled “Moral philosophy and its discontents,” which he published on his own Skeptic online. This is my counter-response, and will be the last thing I will say on the topic for a while, as my experience is that going beyond two rounds in these cases quickly leads to diminishing returns. Of course, Michael is free to write a third piece, if he wishes.

To begin with, I’m going to tone down the rhetoric and focus on the substance, first because it is the right thing to do, and second because otherwise we get into an escalation of hyperboles that doesn’t really help thoughtful discourse (in his second article, for instance, Shermer says that I have become “nearly apoplectic” at his suggestion that witch hunting and the Holocaust were the result of utilitarianism. I assure you, it was a slight exaggeration.). I’ve been guilty of this even in the recent past (mea culpa), so let’s see if I can manage to do better.

I am not the only professional philosopher that has strongly criticized Michael for his original SciAm article. Another good example is Justin Weinberg, of the University of South Carolina (and editor of the Daily Nous), who, among other things, tweeted: “Disappointing that @sciam is contributing to our era’s ever-frequent disrespect of expertise by publishing this ill-informed & confused @michaelshermer column on moral philosophy.” It is not a simplistic argument from authority to point out that when professionals in a field unequivocally say you got things wrong it is wise to seriously consider that you might, indeed, have done so.

On his part, Shermer chides me for not having read a paper by G. Kahane et al. entitled “Beyond sacrificial harm: A two-dimensional model of utilitarian psychology,” published recently in Psychological Review. Well, guilty of being honest and telling when I have or have not read something. Still, my post was not a critique of Kahane et al.’s paper, but of Michael’s commentary (which, despite his protestations to the contrary, touches only marginally on the paper in question). I have now read Kahane et al., and I still think Shermer is wrong. More on this, of course, in a moment.

In my critique, I said that Michael has taken a very simplistic view of utilitarianism (a philosophy, incidentally, that I do not endorse). He rebutted that one of the examples I labelled as simplistic comes straight out of the Kahane et al. paper. The example in question is meant to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies, and it is formulated as a question: “Would you politically oppress a people for a limited time if it increased the overall well-being of the citizenry?” It does indeed come from the paper, but that’s a negative reflection on the paper, not on my point. No serious utilitarian after J.S. Mill would answer yes to that sort of question, so it is hard to say in what sense this would be helpful to measure one’s utilitarian tendencies.

In response to an admittedly sarcastic comment I made, Shermer states that he knows the difference between act and rule utilitarianism, and moreover that he is not naive about moral philosophy, since he has taken two undergraduate courses on the subject (one in general philosophy, the other one in ethics). He has also read a lot of books by Dan Dennett (not a moral philosopher), and gone through several Teaching Company’s Great Courses in philosophy. After all of which, he felt competent enough to write two books on the subject (The Science of Good and Evil and The Moral Arc), and to teach an undergraduate course at Chapman University. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Michael’s background is sufficient to invalidate my original observation, but I will note that bringing in the difference between act and rule utilitarianism would have cleared a lot of muddled points in the SciAm article. He didn’t do it.

In my response, I stated unequivocally that Shermer is wrong when he says that trolley problems are an example of utilitarian thinking. And I stand by that statement, see my previous post for relevant links. Here too, Michael’s defense is “Kahane et al. did it,” which of course at best just means that Kahane et al. might have gotten something wrong, and that Shermer failed to correct it. But in fact they did not get it wrong. They say the following, for instance: “researchers have tried to uncover the psychological and even neural underpinnings of the dispute between utilitarians and their opponents — such as defenders of deontological, rights-based views of the kind associated with Immanuel Kant.” Exactly, so trolley dilemmas are used in cognitive science to explore both utilitarian and deontological thinking, and are therefore not an example of the former. Moreover, trolley dilemmas were introduced by moral philosopher Philippa Foot to highlight the limitations of both utilitarian and deontological thinking (in favor of the third way, virtue ethics), and they are still usually discussed in that context in intro philosophy courses. So, yes, Michael is still wrong here.

It gets worse. Shermer writes: “one might argue that trolley dilemmas represent only one form of utilitarianism (sacrificial) … but it is inaccurate to simply assert that trolley problems have nothing to do with utilitarianism.” To begin with, I never claimed that trolley dilemmas have “nothing to do” with utilitarianism. Never. Second, there is no such thing as sacrificial utilitarianism. Look it up, it’s just not a term in moral philosophy. What Michael means is utilitarian thinking applied to sacrificial problems. Not the same thing.

We now get to the part that nearly caused me an apoplectic attack, allegedly, when Shermer stated (in the first article) that witch hunts and genocides like the Holocaust or the one in Rwanda were caused by utilitarian thinking. In his response, Michael quotes himself from The Moral Arc: “It is evident that most of what we think of as our medieval ancestors’ barbaric practices were based on mistaken beliefs about how the laws of nature actually operate. If you — and everyone around you including ecclesiastical and political authorities — truly believe that witches cause disease, crop failures, sickness, catastrophes, and accidents, then it is not only a rational act to burn witches, it is a moral duty. … Medieval witch-burners torched women primarily out of a utilitarian calculus — better to kill the few to save the many. Other motives were present as well, of course, including scapegoating, the settling of personal scores, revenge against enemies, property confiscation, the elimination of marginalized and powerless people, and misogyny and gender politics. But these were secondary incentives grafted on to a system already in place that was based on a faulty understanding of causality.”

Two points here. First off, Shermer is in full speculatory mode here. We simply have no idea how to interpret and weigh the various motives of medieval witch-burners. All factors listed by Michael (and probably more) may have played a role, but anyone who assuredly claims that “this” was the major cause while the others were secondary is pulling one out of thin air. There simply is little empirical evidence to bear on this sort of claims. Second, what I begin to suspect is going on here is a fallacy of equivocation (which will reappear below, when we get to the issue of natural rights). Shermer knows very well that medieval witch-burners could not possibly have deployed Bentham’s or Mill’s philosophy, which had yet to be invented, so he uses the word “utilitarian” in a vaguer, broader sense, which then allows him to implicate the philosophy. Nice try, but this is sophistry, not good reasoning. (I said I wasn’t going to get snarky, not that I wouldn’t be critical.)

Indeed, Michael seems aware of this: “here let me clarify to anyone who thinks I can’t even get my centuries straight that I’m not arguing Torquemada sat down with Pope Sixtus IV to compute the greater good sacrifice of 10,000 Jews in order to save 50,000 Catholics; instead I am aiming to understand the underlying psychological forces behind witch hunts and genocides.” Except you cannot possibly have empirically substantive evidence of the psychological forces underlying the thinking and acting of Torquemada and sixtus IV, so why engage in this sort of psycho-historical speculation? It is just as likely, possibly even more, that Sixtus IV would have killed ten times more Jews in order to save ten times fewer Christians, since Jews and Christians, for him, were simply not comparable in moral value. Good skepticism is about empirical evidence, so why don’t we stick to that?

Shermer continues with another lengthy citation from The Moral Arc: “As in the limbic system with it’s neural networks for emotions, approach-avoidance moral conflicts have neural circuitry called the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) that drive an organism forward or back, as in the case of the rat vacillating between approaching and avoiding the goal region. … These activation and inhibition systems can be measured in experimental settings in which subjects are presented with different scenarios in which they then offer their moral judgment (giving money to a homeless person as prescriptive vs. wearing a sexually suggestive dress to a funeral as proscriptive).”

This is very nice, interesting, even, but utterly irrelevant. Of course animal and human thoughts and actions have specific neural underpinnings. How else would we think or act? But, quite obviously, different people balance the outputs of their BAS and BIS differently, and they end up thinking and acting differently. Some of these differences (though certainly not all of them) may be the result of philosophical reflection on why one should act one way rather than another. And this discussion is about moral philosophy, not neuroscience. As I pointed out in my original review of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape (which appeared, partly censored, in e-Skeptic), we may as well discuss the validity of a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by doing an fMRI scan of the brain of a mathematician. Interesting, no doubt. But also entirely unhelpful to the question at hand.

Michael briefly touches on my criticism of his treatment of Kant, where I brought up a technical paper by Helga Varden on the famous problem of lying to the Nazi. He says: “There is much more to her analysis of Kant, but it seems to me that in this example lying to Nazis is both a utilitarian/consequentialist decision because it would result in the death of an innocent, and a rule/rights decision that qualifies why we should care about the innocent in the first place: because, say, Kant’s rule about never treating people as an ends to a mean but as an ends in and of themselves, or that all people have a right to their own life.” This is very muddled. First off, lying to the Nazi would save the life of an innocent, not result in his death. Second, one can make that decision within a utilitarian framework, but also within a deontological one (Kant’s deontological system is not the only one on the market, so to speak). Third, Kant did not say that we should not treat other people as a means to an end (not the other way around!), he said we should never treat other people solely as means to an end. Without that qualification, we couldn’t go to a restaurant and be served by a waiter, because that would be using a human being as a means (waiter) to an end (getting my meal). The additional “solely” says that we can do that, but always while keeping in mind that we are interacting with a human being, not a machine. Fourth, nobody believes that all people have an unqualified right to their life. If instead of the Jew my basement hid a mass murderer (not because I’m protecting him, but under threat to my life) then I would certainly give him away to the authorities, even if that should result in his death. That’s the thing about good moral philosophy: it’s complicated, and requires precise nuanced thinking. And that is why we have professionals devoted to it.

Finally we come to the topic that most railed Shermer’s supporters on Twitter: natural rights. He ended his SciAm column with an endorsement of the concept, and I responded that on that topic I was with Jeremy Bentham (the founder of utilitarianism): the notion of natural rights is “nonsense on stilts.”

This is a complex topic, with a long history in philosophy, and despite Bentham’s flippant response, there have been serious defenders of it throughout the centuries. The notion of natural rights is related to, but is not the same as, the notion of natural law. Scholars trace the idea back to Plato and Aristotle, but it is far from clear that either one of them meant anything like the modern version deployed by thinkers from John Locke and Thomas Paine to Robert Nozick. I have a separate essay on natural law on my Stoic blog, since it is pertinent to that philosophy, but here let me simply reiterate my basic point: I don’t think there is any defensible notion of natural rights (as distinct from rights as human constructs) that is not hopelessly entangled with what I think are antiquated or indefensible notions of Platonism (as in Plato), teleology (as in Aristotle), or theology (as in Thomas Aquinas). You may disagree, of course, but then you owe us a defense of Platonism, teleology, or theology.

One counter to my criticism I have run across a lot on Twitter during my debate with Michael in the past few days is that human beings are part of nature, so obviously there are natural rights. QED. Well, no. This, again, threads on an equivocation. Yes, as a biologist I certainly agree that humanity is just as natural as anything else in the universe. But in the context of this sort of discussion the distinction has always (since Aristotle!) being very clear: natural rights refers to something that is mind-independent but can be discovered by human beings capable of reason; so-called positive rights, by contrast, are the result of human agreements. True, in a sense, positive rights are also “natural,” but it just doesn’t help to talk that way, it muddles a perfectly clear distinction.

This, incidentally, is an area where there is more agreement between Shermer and myself that may at first glance appear. More, but nowhere near total. Before I get to his rebuttal, let me state briefly what my position is. “Rights” are a human construct, the result of agreeing among ourselves, on the basis of moral and political considerations, that certain things qualify as rights and others don’t. The best sort of evidence that rights are of this kind is the complete disagreement among supporters of natural rights on the number and content of these alleged rights. We go from just one right (Richard Cumberland: benevolence toward all rational creatures), to three rights (Locke: life, liberty, and property — this is the one Michael wants, qua libertarian), to a whopping 19 natural laws from which one can derive corresponding rights (Hobbes, in chapters 14 and 15 of Leviathan).

That said, I do agree that rights are not entirely arbitrary, as they are linked to human nature, just like all moral philosophy is (Skye Cleary and I have recently argued this in Aeon). This puts me somewhere in the middle between moral anti-realists, who think that there is no such thing as a moral truth, and moral realists, who think that there is. I am a moral quasi-realist, meaning that for me morality is an evolving set of ideas that strives to regulate social interactions in order to allow people to flourish qua members of a social group. The reason I don’t think — contra both Shermer and Harris — that science can give us answers to moral questions is because I think facts about human nature under-determine moral systems. That is, given human nature as it is, there are several different, possibly incompatible, ways to develop moral codes. The choice among moral philosophies, then, is informed by facts about human nature, but not determined by it. To ask whether, say, utilitarianism or deontology or virtue ethics are “true” is to commit a category mistake. These are frameworks to think about social life. They may be more or less useful and more or less coherent, but not true or false (and hence not falsifiable or verifiable scientifically).

Okay, now back to the last chunk of Michael’s response. He thinks I contradict myself when I say that we all prefer to be alive rather than dead. I don’t see how that follows. Mine is just a statement of a natural desire. One has to do philosophical work to go from there to a right, especially a right that is somehow inalienable. (I also desire gelato, but that does not imply that I have a right to it.) I do think the is/ought gap can be filled, but not by simply stating that what is natural is ipso facto good. That, as Shermer knows, is yet another informal fallacy, the appeal to nature. And it is easily countered by endless examples (aggression and war are natural for human beings, it doesn’t follow that aggression and war are good).

Shermer takes a lot of liberties with evolutionary biology (another field in which I honestly question his qualifications): “Any organism subject to natural selection — which includes all organisms on this planet and most likely on any other planet as well — will by necessity have this drive to survive and flourish.” No, there is no natural selective imperative to flourish, especially if flourishing entails things like owning private property. Indeed, strictly speaking there is no natural imperative to survive either: survival is useful, from the standpoint of natural selection, only if it leads to reproduction. Sure enough, often selection favors short life spans, or rather nasty (i.e., non flourishing) lives, so long as the reproductive imperative is satisfied. And, again, just because natural selection favors individuals who reproduce, it certainly doesn’t make non reproducing immoral, does it? One of the few times I agreed with Steven Pinker (often quoted by Shermer) is when he wrote, I believe in The Language Instinct, that he made a decision early on in his life not to have children, but to devote his life to research, teaching, friends, and other good things. He commented (I quote from memory, since I no longer have a copy of that book): “and if my genes don’t like it, they can go and jump into the lake.” Indeed.

So when Michael says “I argue, the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is my moral starting point, and it is grounded in principles that are themselves based on nature’s laws and on human nature — principles that can be tested in both the laboratory and in the real world,” he is confusing different things, or at the very least drawing a direct connection between (certain aspects of) human nature and morality. This can’t be done, one needs empirically informed philosophical work to bridge the is/ought gap, not just brute facts.

He says other things that are clearly incorrect from a biological standpoint, like “The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics — a fundamental unit of nature.” No, as plenty of biological organisms are colonial (corals, some jellyfish), or their individuality is temporary (when it’s time to reproduce, as in slime molds), or don’t have clear boundaries at all (several species of trees and mushrooms), or are a complex ensemble of multiple organisms that only appear to be one (human beings, see the concept of holobionts).

Shermer approvingly quotes Pinker: “Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.” Yes, as the Stoics had already figured out 23 centuries ago, we are born with a rudimentary sense of pro-social behavior, which we share with other primates. And yes, morality is the result of building on that innate sense by way of reasoning and language (a notion that the Stoics elaborated into their theory of moral development). But we are no forced to one specific set of conclusions, again because there is a relationship of under-determination between facts about human nature and moral frameworks.

Michael counts himself and Pinker as moral realists, and thinks he slam dunks the case with the following rhetorical question: “Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?” Well, first all, history is full of slave holders. People before very recent times thought that slavery was natural and just. Indeed, they derived this conclusion from their understanding of human nature, or the divine ordering of things, or whatever. More importantly, Shermer makes a fundamental mistake here: confusing objectivity with absolute truth.

Consider a simple example. Given the (entirely arbitrary) rules of the game of chess, a number of things about the game are objectively true. Heck, one can even demonstrate mathematical theorems about chess. But these truths are not “universal,” they are contingent on the specific set of rules that constitute the game. They don’t exist “out there,” in any kind of mind independent fashion. And they are, therefore, not inalienable. One can deny them by simply refusing to play the game, or by inventing a different game with even slightly different rules.

Yes, I do believe that slavery is wrong, given my understanding of human nature, which prioritizes individual flourishing and the application of reason to the improvement of pro-sociality. But there are other understandings from which my conclusions do not follow. So I have to argue the point from within whatever moral framework I have chosen (in my case, virtue ethics), I cannot simply and straightforwardly derive it from empirical observations about human behavior. If only it were that simple.

90 thoughts on “Michael Shermer on moral philosophy, second round

  1. brodix


    Keeping mind good writing is that very ability to extract signal from the noise, to synthesize an effective argument from multiple inputs. Sometimes it is not possible and our descriptions end up as convoluted as the situation, but that hasn’t solved the problem. Simply making it more convoluted doesn’t solve the issue, so sometimes it requires stepping back and seeing the broader picture, rather than delving further into the details.


  2. Paul Braterman

    What do people here think of Kenan Malik’s TheQuest for a Moral Compass?

    Huck’s case is interesting; he chooses to do what he believes to be morally wrong, being motivated by human sympathy, while we admire him all the more for his choice because it went against the principles that he still believed in. There must have been many Nazis who similarly believed themselves to have failed to act properly when they refrained from reporting Jews.

    So is Mark Twain arguing for case-by-case judgment, as opposed to the application of any a priori code?


  3. Massimo Post author


    “I don’t think Shermer cares about what the point of the trolley dilemma was originally”

    It’s not just a question of what it was for originally, he mischaracterizes how it is used now.

    “This seems implausible to me. Meta-ethics is a philosophical activity”

    And we all do it, whether we recognize what we are doing or not. That’s one of many reasons philosophy ought to be taught at a pre-college level. So we can do it a bit better.

    “You still need an emotional feeling that some things are right and some things are wrong, or else I think we’d be left with might is right and self-interest”

    I don’t see why that follows at all. At any rate, we have those feelings, and it would be foolish not to pay attention to them. All I’m saying is that the feelings by themselves do not make a moral philosophy. Nor should they. Think of a scientist having a gut feeling (intuition) that X is the right theory. You wouldn’t like it if he stopped there, right? You expect him to put X to the test, to reason over it, to look at empirical evidence. Same with moral intuitions.

    “I thought you would agree with me that there is no truth to the proposition that X is right or not. There is no such thing as objective moral truth”

    I am a moral quasi-realist, I do think there are objective answers to moral questions, but I think that objectivity is contingent. Had human nature been different, you get different objective answers. Moreover, certain answers may be true within a particular social framework but not others (say, with the economy built according to a specific model). It’s like chess: objective theorems can be proven, but if you change the rules all of those theorems go out the window.

    “what Labnut is suggesting (I think) is to use your gut to choose between competing post-analytical reactions”

    And my example of abandoning octupi and prosciutto is a counter to that suggestion. No, sometimes you do the moral thing because the head makes a compelling case, even though your emotions lean elsewhere.

    “Is it possible that you had a second passion that had not yet surfaced?”

    Sure, it’s possible. But now it sounds to me like you are simply postulating an endless set of nested passions just to save your point. It surely doesn’t feel that way in the case of my octupi and prosciutto. (I should probably write a book with that title…)


    “Grant me that if someone is NEITHER following rule A NOR following rule B then he can hardly be accused of being illogical if his actions are inconsistent with those rules.”

    Sometimes I think you would have made an excellent sophist, in the time of Socrates. And I say that with (grudgning) admiration. Yes, I grant you that, but since that has nothing to do with my point that adopting a particular ethical framework and then acting according to another one is incoherent, I’m happy to leave it there.

    “And I know that I don’t have to tell you that you can’t derive “John was following rule A” from “John’s actions were consistent with rule A””

    No, but you can make inferences. Moreover — which is what is done with experiments in moral psychology using trolley dilemmas — you can ask them. Sure enough, turns out people give philosophically incoherent explanations of their behavior.


    “So is Mark Twain arguing for case-by-case judgment, as opposed to the application of any a priori code?”

    There is no question that people can be flexible in their approach to morality, and do some mix and matching. However, I wouldn’t talk of “codes,” which sound awfully rigid. For me ethical theories are frameworks, general ways to orient and calibrate one’s moral compass. No theory tells you exactly what to do in every single situation, you have to interpret it according to your understanding of both the framework and the specific situation.


  4. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    Going to bed now but briefly…

    The comment about a hidden self surfacing was from Socratic, not me.

    The story about not eating octopus or pork is not a counterexample at all. There is the analysis from tastiness and the analysis from not wanting to hurt sentient creatures. Your gut found the latter more persuasive. Other people go with the former. I would not necessarily say those people are making an irrational mistake. They may be making a moral mistake, but to say that in my view is just to say that one disagrees with their choice.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Massimo Post author


    yes, sorry, I thought I put a “Socratic” before proceeding to the next point.

    I find it curious how you and others here go out of your way to deny a significant role of reason. If it’s all gut reactions, I wonder, why do you frequent a philosophy blog? Wait, your fut tells you to do so… Have a good night!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. brodix


    Keep in mind that Huck’s emotions came from his history and relationship with Jim. Presumably if it was someone he just met in passing, he would have had no problem acting on his beliefs.
    That is the problem with viewing reality as platonically rules based, rather than rules, frames, beliefs, etc as a distillation from the larger reality. All that background is erased and then people try to reconstruct a reality from the rules and end up out in the multiverse of alternate reality.


  7. Massimo Post author


    that’s exactly the article Skye and I responded to with our piece on philosophy and human nature in Aeon. We think de Sousa gets both evolutionary biology and Existentialism wrong (or at least, the implications of evobio for Existentialism).


  8. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, agreed that the “there is no such thing as human nature” and other things are wrong in the Aeon piece. Certainly there are elements of human nature we can define. Basically, it seems like Sousa stood Hume’s dictum on a contrapositive head, among other things. Plus, evolutionary bio doesn’t disprove natural law; reasoned thinking does, tho evobio may be one of the nails in the coffin it constructs. And, I certainly disagree with the last paragraph!
    That said, do you think the interpretation of Moore is itself correct, or not? (I should have been more specific that that was my main focus.)


  9. Massimo Post author


    de Sousa writes:

    “In Principia Ethica (1903), the philosopher G E Moore adduced what he called an ‘open question argument’ for a similar constraint on any discourse about value. He claimed that any attempt to define ‘good’ in naturalistic terms – such as pleasure, or ‘utility’, or for that matter a divine commandment – must fail, because it always remains an ‘open question’ whether pleasure, or utility, or that particular divine commandment, really is good. If such a definition were sound, like the definition of a triangle as a three-angled plane figure, then the question would not make sense. ‘Is a triangle really a three-sided figure?’ would merely signal a failure to understand the definition.

    Moore’s formulation has given rise to an enormous amount of debate. It is reasonable to object that it begs the question: for if one of those definitions of ‘good’ is correct, then the question is no longer open. But it must be admitted that no definition of ‘good’ in terms of some natural properties is very plausible. Hume’s original ‘is-ought’ gap still gapes.”

    I think his interpretation of Moore is correct (though, Dan??), but I also think that Moore’s open question is way oversold. It assumes a foundationalist approach to concepts, which I and many other modern philosophers reject. We are free to define “good” in a number of ways, and see where each way leads us. Some avenues are promising, others aren’t. And of course, if one rejects a naturalistic avenue, as Moore (but not Hume!) does, then what? Platonism again?


  10. ejwinner

    Paul Braterman:
    “There must have been many Nazis who similarly believed themselves to have failed to act properly when they refrained from reporting Jews.”
    Some Germans, perhaps; including some conservatives who joined the party without fully understanding its ideology. The form of National Socialism that at last came to power was rightfully dubbed “Hitlerism,” the form espoused in Mein Kampf. And Hitlerism is so bound to antisemitism that it can be said, that this form of Nazism was not a political-economic project that used antisemitic sentiment to accomplish its goal, but rather an antisemitic project that used politics and economics to accomplish its goal – expunging Europe of all Jews.

    This gets largely forgotten in discussions of Nazism, and was even before the Second World War. Genocide wasn’t incidental to Nazi ideology – it was its core project from the start.

    I suppose the main reason this is forgotten or misunderstood, is because it is monstrous to the reason that there can be a systematic ideology, approaching religious faith, that is based on the hope of violence and slaughter on a massive scale.

    Reasonable people want this never to have been. Unfortunately, it still is.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Daniel Kaufman

    Massimo: Re: de Sousa and Moore.

    –I think Moore’s argument is a bit stronger than perhaps you give it credit. Like many of his other arguments that seem obviously to beg the question — like the one, for example, in “Proof of an External World,” I think Moore is doing something more subtle.

    The point is this: for any definition you’d give, say, P, you’d have to say, ‘P is good’ is analytic. So “Pleasure is good” would have to be a necessary truth. But is it really credible to suggest that suggesting that “Pleasure is not good” is contradictory, in the manner of “bachelors are married”?

    Moore’s point is not that any of the specific definitions are false, but that any definition must be false, because it would have this absurd consequence that “P is good” is analytic and “P is not good” is contradictory.

    The reason that any definition must be false is because goodness is brute — in Anscombe’s sense — relative to other concepts that comprise moral forms of life. I myself am beginning to think something like this has to be the case, and of course it is amenable to a Wittgensteinian framework (as much of Moore’s work is — Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty” is a development of Moore’s ideas, as expressed in “Proof of an External World” and “In Defence of Common Sense.”)

    = = =

    Of course, the common reply to Moore — beyond the charge of question-begging — is that a utilitarian needn’t say that he is defining ‘good’, when he says “Pleasure is good,” and that may be the case. But Moore’s point strikes me as important nonetheless, as it helps us to understand what I’ve just described. I think that all of this kind of work, across the many subject areas in which he deploys it, is intended as a prophylactic against skepticism, in a similar manner to Hume’s naturalism, but in the linguistic idiom of the 20th century. For a nice account of the bridge between the Humean and Moorean/Wittgensteinian strategy in dealing with skepticism, see P.F. Strawson’s “Scepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties,” his 1983 Woodbridge Lectures.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Daniel Kaufman

    I should add that where Moore goes wrong is in asserting that goodness is a non-natural property which leads us down a rabbit hole of what I take to be a bad conception of moral intuitionism. (Ross I think provides us with a good version.). Where Moore gets it right is in his suggestion that ‘good’ is undefinable and it’s that aspect of his account that I think has legs, in the manner I suggested.


  13. brodix


    “Define good in naturalistic terms..must fail.”

    That’s because good and bad are a binary option, like yes/no, on off, etc. What is good for the fox is bad for the chicken. It would be like defining ‘yes’ in naturalistic terms.


    What Hitler was trying to do was resurrect tribalism in its most elemental form. Us versus them at its most primal level.
    Do you remember listening to the genocide in Rwanda in real time? It was stirring up that level of social anti-biotic reaction, obviously on a far greater scale. There was enormous anti-Semitism, but it was part of the demonic spiritualism Nazism sought to imbibe. Even the swastika was emblematic.
    Civilization is a few thousand years old. Tribalism is older than humanity.


  14. Massimo Post author


    I agree that’s what Moore was trying to do, and that there is some value in it. But I also think Moore got caught in his own (and Russell’s) obsession with analytics and language, and lost track of the forest for the trees, so to speak.

    At a basic level, “good” is a modified of something else, not a thing in itself. To ask for a definition of the good is a category mistake, unlike asking for a definition of triangles. Rather, certain things are good for human beings, given the sort of social animals wwe are, and other things are not good for us, for the same reasons. Thus discovering what is good is a matter of biology and culture (mostly culture, beyond the basics), and arguing how to make it available to people is a task for philosophy (and science, in the practical aspects).

    Liked by 1 person

  15. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, Dan, thanks for input from both.

    Contra the author, I don’t take Moore as spinning off Hume. I think Dan’s on to something on taking him on his own analytic terms. I also think he’s trying to do a Socratic take on things. I think part about the Socratic method in general, ie “what is good,” but … I also see some shadows of the Euthyphro dilemma, taken over to the issue of natural law, flitting in the background, ie, “is something good because it’s a natural tendency?”


  16. SocraticGadfly

    The flip side of such a natural law version of a Euthyphro would be something like: “or, if we think such and such a tendancy or state is good, to we try to retroject it into some version of human nature?” (A la Rousseau’s “noble savage.”) The analogy doesn’t fully hold, but I think it does to a degree.


  17. synred

    So Socrates made a category mistake?

    I’ve always taken good to vary from person-to-person. Evil/bad is more uniform.


  18. Massimo Post author


    no, Socrates did not make a category mistake. He identified the chief good (which implies the existence of other goods) with virtue, and gave an argument for it in the Euthydemus. One may or may not buy the argument, but it’s there.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. brodix

    A big problem with identifying good as an ideal, rather than a positive, is the ‘more is not always better’ issue. We lose sight of the larger equilibrium and push desires far beyond excess, because our meta-belief system, especially in the west, is based on the pursuit of the ideal, not maintaining balance.

    Reality is a tension of opposites, but we only want winners.


  20. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo,

    he mischaracterizes how it is used now

    Perhaps, but I think unintentionally. I don’t think he is interested in how it is characterised one way or another. He’s just using it as an example. As such I can accept that his phrasing might leave something to be desired, but I don’t think this is a substantive point of disagreement between you two.

    All I’m saying is that the feelings by themselves do not make a moral philosophy. Nor should they.

    Agreed. Nobody is suggesting that we throw out moral philosophy entirely. But I think the feelings have a place in judging which kind of moral analysis to accept.

    I do think there are objective answers to moral questions

    I can see why you might feel that way about certain questions, but not about all moral questions. There certainly are facts about human nature and constraints on how societies can be organised so as to flourish, but this still leaves a lot of issues underdetermined. For instance, I don’t see how you might justify the view that it is objectively wrong to eat pork. Yes, pigs are smart, but it doesn’t follow automatically that I ought to care about them just because they’re smart. I might feel that I ought to care about them, but that’s an emotional reaction, and it will not sway someone who does not share that reaction.

    You expect him to put X to the test, to reason over it, to look at empirical evidence. Same with moral intuitions.

    Yes, indeed. But science is all about objective fact and morality really isn’t. When all the evidence is in you still have to make a moral judgement about what is right and what is wrong, and no amount of evidence will tell you. You can’t get from an is to an ought without involving moral intuition/emotion.

    I find it curious how you and others here go out of your way to deny a significant role of reason.

    I don’t understand how you could read me to be saying that. Reason has a crucial role. I’m saying that

    Emotions drive us to care about what is right or wrong in the first place
    Reason helps us to analyse an issue
    Emotion plays a role in assessing what to do in light of a certain analysis.

    In your example…

    You want to do the right thing
    You have used reason to reflect deeply and thoughtfully on the issue of whether you should eat pork. As part of this you reflected on the intelligence of pigs.
    You have decided that causing suffering to sentient creatures feels wrong and so decided to stop eating pork.

    Reason is there in step two, but emotions are responsible for the fact that you want to do the right thing in the first place and that you don’t want to hurt sentient creatures.

    Dan’s analysis is different. I know he is as thoughtful as you but sees nothing wrong with eating meat. I don’t know if he eats pork or octopus as I’m not sure if he keeps kosher, but let’s say he does eat them.

    He wants to do the right thing.
    He has used reason to reflect deeply and thoughtfully on the issue of whether he should eat pork. He knows that pigs are smart but does not feel much of a moral duty to them because they are not people.
    He has decided that there is nothing wrong with eating pigs.

    Both of you are thoughtful. Neither of you have made any mistake that I can see. And yet you have reached different conclusions, simply because you feel differently about it. So I’m not saying reason has no role. I’m saying we need reason and emotion together. Labnut makes this explicit and I think he’s right.

    This is a modest evolution of my own thinking, by the way. In light of these considerations I’m now less of a utilitarian than I was, though utilitarianism still has the most appeal for me of all the frameworks.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Robin Herbert


    Yes, I grant you that, but since that has nothing to do with my point that adopting a particular ethical framework and then acting according to another one is incoherent, I’m happy to leave it there.

    So if John would pull the switch to save the five and kill the one but would not push the fat man off the bridge to save the five, then he is not begin illogical or acting incoherently as long as he is not following the rule “save as many as possible” in the first instance and not following the rule “do no harm to another” in the second instance.

    If, in both instances, he is only following the rule “Do what you most want to do, or if there is no possible option you want, do that which is least abhorrent to you” then his actions are not incoherent.

    Forgive me but it seems more like sophistry to accuse him of being incoherent by the artifice of attributing a framework to him that he may never have claimed to have adopted.


  22. Robin Herbert

    Moreover, if John does adopt a moral framework, or subscribe to some moral theory, then what can this mean besides that he wants to act according to that framework or theory?

    So if John wants to act according to a certain moral theory and then one day he finds that he wants to do something contrary to that theory then he is simply in a position in which we commonly find ourselves, of having to decide between two inconsistent desires. If John decides that the desire to act contrary to the moral framework is stronger than his desire to act according to it in this case then all he has done is to select the stronger desire between two inconsistent desires and there is nothing incoherent about that.

    I like to pay my bills on time, but maybe one month I want to get my kids something for their birthday and I don’t have enough money to get it and also pay the bills. So I decide that I want to get the gift more than I want to pay the bills on time.

    If someone said that I had acted illogically, because I had adopted a bill paying on time framework and then one month did not pay the bills then he would be wrong, because their is nothing illogical or incoherent about choosing between two inconsistent wants.

    So why would it be different for John, who wants to act according to a particular moral framework but finds one day that he wants something else even more?

    It doesn’t mean that he stopped wanting to act according to the framework, it just means that he found something he wanted more in a particular case.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Robin Herbert

    Peter Singer says that we are being inconsistent if we would sacrifice a $200 pair of shoes to save a chiid dying in front of us, but not sacrifice that amount of money to save children dying overseas.

    But he is assuming that the person is following the rule “sacrifice at least X dollars to save a dying child”. It seems more likely that the person is following the rule “Proportion your sacrifice to how bad the child’s death makes you feel” and if so then the person is being perfectly consistent.

    Indeed that person would be acting incoherently if he would spend the same amount to save children dying overseas as he would on the child dying right in front of him.

    So if the universal “ought” is “don’t act illogically” then the person who does not spend any money on children dying overseas can rest assured that he has done his duty.

    If, on the other hand, the “ought” is to save children and people in general from unnecessary death and suffering, then he should act illogically and spend the money.


  24. Robin Herbert


    I don’t think anyone is suggesting we abandon reason. But we should not pretend that the emotive basis of moral decisions does not exist.

    I would go a bit further. I was, at one time, not a vegetarian-pescatarian. Then several people made cogent points, i.e., they reasoned with me, and I changed my mind. Moreover, I did it over strenous objections from my passions, at least the passions for octopus and prosciutto. Both octupi and pigs are too smart to suffer or die just for my culinary pleasure.

    In other words you had two competing desires. You had a desire to eat prosciutto and octopus and you had a desire not to have smart animals suffering and dying for your culinary pleasures. On discussing it you find that these two desires are incompatible, so you have to choose the thing that you wanted most.

    The stronger desire, in this case was the desire not to have intelligent animals suffer and die for your culinary pleasure.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    Peter Singer says that we are being inconsistent if we would sacrifice a $200 pair of shoes to save a chiid dying in front of us, but not sacrifice that amount of money to save children dying overseas.

    I mostly agree with what you’re saying, but I’m not sure this is true. This thought experiment is only pointing out an apparent or potential inconsistency. If people are happy to say they are more OK with being partially responsible for a child dying overseas than they are with being partially responsible for a child dying in front of them, then he might well agree that they are not being inconsistent. The thing is most people are reluctant to make that admission, and that’s where the force of the argument comes from.

    Also, in Massimo’s defence, there is a sense in which flipping apparently arbitrarily between moral frameworks is inconsistent, if not incoherent. If I decide to dress formally on some days and casually on other days, I dress inconsistently. I don’t think this kind of inconsistency is a problem (especially if there is some sort of rationale or basis for the changes), but it’s not as if there is no inconsistency of any kind.


  26. saphsin


    To get to the spirit of what you’re trying to say, I get your aversion, but that just means moral frameworks are conceptual toolboxes that helps us challenge problems and dilemmas we face in the real world, they’re not formulas we can “prove” to be true in all possible abstract consideration. So it doesn’t bother me as much as it is to you that one framework might not completely fit to explain all the ways how we make sense of the world. I prefer virtue ethics as a way of getting around the problems of deontological and utilitarian ethics, but I have to admit that I am not satisfied with it and looking for alternatives. (certain sophisticated versions of care ethics by Michael Slote and the philosophy of Knud Logstrup seems intriguing)

    I’ll go far as saying that I think that’s not just with regards to moral philosophy, but philosophy in general. Abiding by a philosophy is a process of recreation that results from our shifting interactions with the world, and we may not necessarily converge to a set of explanations on how to conceptualize things. That kind of thing sort of feels like Platonism.


  27. saphsin


    “The stronger desire, in this case was the desire not to have intelligent animals suffer and die for your culinary pleasure.”

    So are you saying “defeating your desires to achieve a moral goal” isn’t a thing? Of course a moral goal is something people desire to achieve, but it takes mental willpower and discipline, unlike succumbing to pleasure. People take the harder path because they believe in leads to the flourishing of the individual. There doesn’t need to be an emotivist basis for following the ethic of proper exercise if we know what a healthy body is like.


  28. brodix


    If reproductive success is the driving force of biology, domestication by humans, even if for consumption, has certainly been a winning strategy for various species of animals. Even most of the wild pig populations in the world are feral.


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