“Not only do we need no God to explain the universe and life. God stands out in the universe as the most glaring of all superfluous sore thumbs.”
This aphorism summarizes the line of thinking that leads Richard Dawkins to his atheism. Many like Dawkins who advocate scientific naturalism find no observations that require the explanation of a divine super mind; they question whether a miraculous deity could fit into a universe governed by natural law. They use this razor mercilessly to slash away anything they deem “spooky” from their worldview, from ectoplasm to élan vital.
But naturalists don’t use their razor consistently enough. They have a blind spot toward a whole swath of beliefs that deserves the same skepticism, beliefs that concern entities just as superfluous and spooky as ghosts and gods. What’s surprising is how commonplace these beliefs may seem: they are some of the most popular, allegedly secular beliefs about ethics.
Once we exorcise morality of these ghostly remnants of religion’s past, we’ll see this leaves more than enough room for new secular moral ideals to flourish.
Spooky secular morality
The secular view of morality in question is shared by many and promulgated by respected philosophers. It may seem completely ordinary and non-spooky. It’s the idea that morality is about ignoring personal interests, about a quest to identify impartial reasons for action.
Introducing the idea as an essential foundation of his “humanist” morality, Steven Pinker even describes it in a way that portrays it as a rebellion against mystical “magic”:
Impartiality [is] the realization that there’s nothing magic about the pronouns I and me that could justify privileging my interests over yours or anyone else’s. If I object to being raped, maimed, starved, or killed, I can’t very well rape, maim, starve, or kill you. Impartiality underlies many attempts to construct morality on rational grounds: Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, Hobbes’s social contract, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, Nagel’s view from nowhere, Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal, and of course the Golden Rule and its precious-metallic variants, rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions.1
The impressive range of nominally secular philosophers Pinker cites here as having reached the same conclusion appears to lend it credibility, as though it’s an obvious fact they’ve all discovered independently. But digging deeper into the meaning of the idea will challenge the naturalistic respectability of a morality of impartiality.
Consider first Pinker’s reference to John Rawls, who revived political philosophy in academia in the 1970s. His theory of social justice left its mark by profoundly influencing today’s liberal-egalitarian consensus in favor of the welfare state.2 One would hope that an impact like this would have been powered by the most high-octane, empirically grounded, scientific philosophy.
Yet at the core of Rawls’s argument is a notion that sounds more like a fantasy story than science. His signature idea is the “veil of ignorance.” It holds that if we are to identify the principles of a just society, we must don this “veil of ignorance” by imagining that we know nothing of our own personal identities: nothing about our lineage, our social status, our innate abilities, or even our personal character. Rawls argues that we did nothing to earn any of these traits, and that a conception of justice should abstract away from them to consider only the decisions a purely “rational” being would make.3 For all such a being could know, it might end up as the least advantaged member of society and would want others with greater advantages to help it out.4 'At the core of Rawls’s argument is a notion that sounds more like a fantasy story than science.' Click To Tweet
Of course, for Rawls, the “veil of ignorance” is supposed to be an idealized thought experiment that reveals something about the boundaries of our concept of “justice.” But his idealization of justice itself suggests a fantasy story. He portrays justice as though it were dispensed by a god-like society hovering over and above unborn disembodied souls, not as a deserved reward for good choices, but as answers to those poor souls’ wistful prayers.
Before he pursued a career in philosophy, Rawls almost entered the Episcopal clergy and wrote a senior thesis arguing that our souls can be saved only through God’s grace, not individual merit.5 His ideal of justice models that of divine mercy far more than the classical idea of rendering each his due. While many factors influence a philosopher’s mature thinking, it’s hard to believe his earlier beliefs played no role.
If Rawls’s theory was not an expression of fealty to the religion of his youth, why did he think that moral reasons must involve such ignorance of one’s identity? Rawls indicates that he inherits the idea from Immanuel Kant, another philosopher on Pinker’s list.6 Examining Kant’s view makes the problem with fitting a morality of impartial reasons into a naturalistic worldview even starker.
For Kant, morality cannot be based on narrow individual interests because this jeopardizes morality’s universal necessity. To say you should be honest if you want to preserve your reputation or to promote your happiness is too fragile of a reason to count as a moral reason. Kant thought that such “hypothetical imperatives” at most give you a merely practical, even selfish, reason to be honest. If your interests change and you don’t care about your reputation or even about your happiness, you have no reason to be honest. Only a categorical imperative can apply universally and hence provide the necessity of a moral norm: simply “you should be honest,” period — no ifs, ands or buts about it.7
But why should such an imperative provide any guiding reason to act? It says be honest, but ostensibly disavows the need to answer the question “Why be honest?” by reference to causal relationships between means and beneficial ends.8 Kant himself admitted that the force of the categorical imperative had no naturalistic basis. In his view, its source is edicts issued by a strange being in a world beyond the senses he calls the “noumenal self,” which we must follow to become “free” from the “sensuous impulses” that negate the moral worth of our motives.9 Any hope that we could transcend the “radical evil” of the impulses of our nature is for Kant dependent on the possibility of something like divine providence which alone can know our desert.10
In contrast to the way personal interests provide reasons to act, Kant’s categorical imperative sounds a lot more like the magic that Pinker disparages. Indeed, Kant worried that if we concerned ourselves entirely with the natural “phenomenal” world studied by science, we could make no sense of morality. He famously thought he had discovered a great “treasure” when he found that his philosophy enabled him to “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith,” faith in the “noumenal” world.11
Perhaps it also comes as no surprise that, like Rawls, Kant was devoutly religious when younger. He was raised and educated as a Pietist, an adherent of a radical sect of Lutheranism that stressed the impossibility of salvation through merit, the importance of fundamental guilt, and our radical dependence on the grace of God.12
But we’ve not yet discussed the spookiest claims that haunt Pinker’s survey of the morality of impartiality. One lurks in his footnote to his first sentence about how there is nothing magic about first-person pronouns. It cites a book by Katarzyna Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe.13 The title names a phrase from the nineteenth-century philosopher Henry Sidgwick, which he used to describe the perspective from which things count as right or wrong by the standard of impartiality.
At first Sidgwick and Singer might seem the least likely to go in for anything vaguely supernatural. Unlike Kant and Rawls, they are utilitarians who think right or wrong is calculated simply by assessing the consequences of our actions for others’ happiness. For this reason, utilitarianism is usually a favorite fallback for secularists in search of a moral code.
But why should we regard the sum total of all of those impacts as the special concern of morality? The sum total of human happiness is never experienced by anyone. As an aggregate, it is little more than a mathematical abstraction. But why then should one concern oneself with the tally of the happiness of strangers around the globe versus simply one’s own and that of the people one loves? To whom or what does the aggregate matter, let alone for moral reasons?
That’s where even the most secular of utilitarians begin to fudge and talk about “the point of view of the universe.” The phrase of course makes no secular-scientific sense, because if there is no God, the universe has no point of view. Sidgwick is said to have intended it primarily as a metaphor, but we are left to wonder what it refers to literally and how that literal fact can give us a reason to act. Benedict Spinoza’s “viewpoint of eternity” is no better, and Thomas Nagel’s “view from nowhere” only compounds the trouble. How can it be that something which has no point of view can provide a reason for someone to act in a way independent from the point of view of his own interests?
Here as with Kant and Rawls, it may again come as no great shock that Sidgwick was raised in a religious family. As he matured he hoped that his scientific studies could justify his religious beliefs. When he found that they could not, he still wondered “what element of truth, vital for mankind, could be disengaged from the husk of legend, or symbolized by the legend, supposing the truth itself capable of being established by human reasoning?”14 The idea that an aggregate of happiness mattered because it could matter to something like a divine being seems to have been harvested from the husk of legend.15
Even if the supernaturalistic idea of a “view from nowhere” doesn’t help explain why it’s rational to practice the morality of impartiality, secularists like Peter Singer rely on what amounts to an act of faith to find one. Singer thinks that the principle of impartiality is simply “intuitively” obvious.16 It’s this “intuition” that animates his whole “effective altruist” doctrine, by which we should work overtime to make money to give away to help the largest number of strangers as possible, because if we’re being impartial, their lives are worth no less than our own. That’s a lot to hang on an “intuition” whose basis in nature is manifestly opaque.
Debunking spooky morality
When a secular thinker like Peter Singer claims to know the equivalent of revealed truths that resemble religious demands for tithing, secularists accustomed to skepticism about religion should start asking questions.
At least some of the more naturalistically oriented philosophers have acknowledged and owned this problem for an ethics of impartiality.
One of them was the prominent atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie. Both Kant and Sidgwick, Mackie observed, claimed that impartial ethical rules had a basis in reality independent of the beliefs and interests of individuals, a basis in reality which somehow exerted some kind of prescriptive pull on the human will. Whatever in the world could have both features? To Mackie, only a philosophy like Plato’s could regard this as plausible, and to do so it would have to point to facts beyond the natural world. Plato described timeless supernatural entities that still somehow participate in our world. His “Forms” — the highest of which is the “Form of the good” — were later appropriated by Christians like Numenius and Augustine as, in effect, ideas in the mind of God.
But if the model for the basis of impartial ethics is on the order of Plato’s mysterious Forms, it’s a problem for naturalism. As Mackie notes: “it would make a radical difference to our metaphysics if we had to find room for . . . something like Plato’s Forms — somewhere in our picture of the world.”17 Such a mind-independent source of value would “be sought by anyone who was acquainted with it, not because of any contingent fact that this person, or every person, is so constituted that he desires this end, but just because the end has to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it.”18
What in the world could ever be known to have such inescapable authority? To a serious naturalist, the answer seems to be: nothing.
Famously, Mackie dismissed the possibility of supernatural entities like Plato’s Forms, for the same reason that Dawkins would dismiss the existence of a God. Mackie could not understand what they were supposed to explain or how they were supposed to work. How do some facts independent of the natural world make actions in the natural world right or wrong, and how are they supposed to reach out and bid us to pursue or avoid these actions? Why would whatever makes it right to bring joy to our loved ones or what makes it wrong to sadistically torture a stranger have something to do with anything other than the lives of the parties concerned? And by means of what faculty are we supposed to know anything about the putative non-natural facts or their relationship to right and wrong actions?
Of course, many recent secular thinkers see nothing in their ethics that sticks out like a sore thumb from a naturalistic worldview. They’d propose that morality could just be the product of evolution. But their proposal to save morality from Mackie’s skepticism fails wholly to appreciate the question at stake. The question is not what explains our capacity to form moral beliefs. It’s whether the moral beliefs we hold today are true. We of course could not have our moral capacities without psychological capacities naturally selected for their adaptive value. But the same holds for any religious beliefs or practices, and secularists don’t think this makes these beliefs true or the resulting practices rational.
Mackie and his followers are fully sympathetic with the theory of evolution but are famously moral skeptics: they question whether a naturalistic worldview has any room for any truths about morality.19Here they agree fundamentally with Kant: if science only reveals a world of connections between means and ends, this at best affords us a code of rational prudence, but not morality. But then the prospect of a thoroughgoing naturalism looks rather bleak. Being scientific means abandoning all hope of giving meaningful answers to our questions about right and wrong.
But this pessimism is unwarranted. Skepticism about morality per se arises only by equating a morality of impartiality with the concept of morality as such. This is a huge mistake. There was a time in medieval Europe when disease was viewed as a product of God’s will. The Black Death was viewed as an agent of purification to punish man for his sins. Yet no one thinks today that because science eventually provided a naturalistic explanation for disease obviating the appeal to God’s will, that medicine had been debunked as a science. We did not narrowly equate medicine with medieval medicine. We should not equate morality with what amounts to medieval morality either.'Skepticism about morality per se arises only by equating a morality of impartiality with the concept of morality as such.' Click To Tweet
There are alternative views of morality which can serve the distinctive function of morality in our lives all while being fully consistent with a naturalistic worldview.
Naturalistic moral alternatives
It would have been a mistake to equate morality with medieval morality even in the middle ages.
Prior to the dominance of Christianity, there were ancient Greek philosophers who adopted naturalistic ethical theories.20 Unlike Plato, Aristotle codified a set of virtues like courage, temperance, and justice that he saw as necessary conditions for eudaemonia (happiness or human flourishing) in the temporal world. Exercising these virtues meant enacting the causes needed to achieve a worldly end, not standing in a mysterious relationship to some other-worldly Form of goodness.
Aristotle’s theory was no mere code of prudence as both Kant and Mackie would have assumed. The virtues were not mere means to narrow, fleeting goals à la Machiavelli. They were central constituents of an overall human end that Aristotle thought had necessary merit. To him virtue is, in effect, excellence of soul or character as health is excellence of the body.
For Aristotle, the reason to be virtuous was that virtues make one’s life excellent. This is far from an impartial reason to be virtuous, and for this reason, some modern philosophers would say his is not a real theory of morality. Yet it would be very strange if one of history’s most influential views about the virtues of courage, generosity, and justice did not count as a morality, and if the history of ethics began only with modern theories like those of Kant and Sidgwick. The idea that only theories of impartiality count as theories of morality betrays a provincially narrow concept of “morality.”
A code of virtues like Aristotle’s bears all the important hallmarks of a moral code. Morality offers guidance not just for choices of discrete action, but for the choices that bear on the kind of person one aspires to become. Virtues like courage, generosity, and justice all concern the habits one seeks to engrain in one’s character. An honest person won’t just be honest on a regular basis, he’ll do so in a way that feels natural, and he’ll feel guilty if he is ever dishonest. By contrast, a characteristically dishonest person will feel tempted to fib, and needs guidance to overcome short-term temptations. If he seeks that guidance and lives up to it, he’ll feel proud of himself, maybe even righteous. A moral code of virtues aimed at character values underwrites a range of ostensibly moral emotions.
None of this is to say that we should simply return to Aristotle if we want a naturalistic ethics. While it’s good that many important contemporary philosophers are now giving Aristotle a second look, our main point is that his theory is a notable counterexample to the Kantian/Mackian equation of morality with supernatural categorical imperatives.21 We can and should look for ways to bring naturalistic ethics up to date.
Case in point: what if some people choose to give up on life and not to care so much about flourishing, or much of anything at all? Could a code of ethics oriented toward that goal still provide any reason for them to be virtuous?
The bug in Aristotle’s ethics is actually a feature in an updated naturalistic code. The idea that morality should offer an inescapable universal authority over our wills — pulling us in the direction of the good like God or some Platonic Form — is not only a relic of the religious view but also ignores the main reason we need moral guidance in the first place: the fact that we make choices.
Because we make choices, we don’t automatically do the right thing or even know what is the right thing to do. Especially if morality concerns the requirements of successful living, the right thing is not obvious and it takes work to discover. Because we can be distracted from our knowledge by short-term temptations, it takes work to act on that knowledge. Even when we have that knowledge fixed in our sights, living takes work that some might decide not to do. The fact that we make choices is a fact about human nature that any naturalistic account of ethics has to take seriously.
Some individuals may never care to discover what it takes to live, or even care to live at all. Then the knowledge of the causal power of virtue would be irrelevant to them and could provide no reason for them to be moral. But it wouldn’t follow from this that it’s then okay to do nothing. One critic of the idea of impartial moral duty, Ayn Rand, offered a robust argument for why only one goal can justify actions.
In Rand’s view, it is only life that can serve as an ultimate justifying end in ethics. This is because it’s only the alternative of existence or non-existence, and the need to pursue a definite course of action to remain in existence that makes sense of the need to distinguish between good and bad actions in the first place.22 Rand brings a fully biological, post-Darwinian perspective to ethics, knowing that the slightest difference in our behavior can make a long-term difference in our struggle for existence. Consequently, we need principles that identify the crucial values we need to achieve and the virtues indispensably required for their achievement. The goal of ethics is not just a vague flourishing quality of life, but life as such. “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.”23 'Rand brings a fully biological, post-Darwinian perspective to ethics, knowing that the slightest difference in our behavior can make a long-term difference in our struggle for existence.' Click To Tweet
Of course, conceiving of morality as advice for living versus the dominant view of morality as impartiality will not leave the conventional code of moral virtues and values unassailable. Critics of treating morality as advice for living will rightly see and object that it will not underwrite moral obligations to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of strangers, as both Christianity and Singer’s effective altruism so vocally advocate.
This is an implication that Rand drew unapologetically from her approach to morality. We can find good, naturalistic reasons to be honest and just (as well as productive and proud). We cannot find good, naturalistic reasons to be humble and self-effacing. So much the worse for humility and self-effacement, she concluded:
Now there is one word — a single word — which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand — the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it — and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy, no earthly reason has ever been given.24
There’s much more to be told about Rand’s naturalistic alternative. There’s also a longer story to be told about why we could think Rand is right that in the long history of ethics, no fully naturalistic justification for self-sacrifice has ever been given. There’s more to be told about how secular philosophers to this day embrace a supernatural conception of morality. It’s a story I do plan to tell at greater length in the future.
For now, the short answer is that our culture never abandoned the moral guidance of religion, not even after it abandoned so many of religion’s strictures with the advance of science. Developing a rational, scientific moral code, after all, is no small feat. Even those who chose to do the work would have faced a daunting task. And it seems that not all of them chose to do the work.
Anyone who has the courage to oppose the religious tradition of belief in God and the miraculous should also be willing to challenge the religious tradition of the morality of impartiality and all that it entails — including self-sacrifice. Secularists will only become consistent in their naturalistic approach when the idea that morality involves some kind of categorical imperative issued by a “view from nowhere” sticks out for them like the sore, supernatural thumb it actually is.
Do you have a comment or question?
- Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018), 412.
- See Dylan Matthews, “The most influential work of political philosophy in the last 50 years, briefly explained,” Vox.com, December 9, 2021.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1971), 101–5.
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 136–37; 150–52.
- Eric Nelson, “John Rawls’ ‘A Theory of Justice’ and Jewish Heresy,” Tablet, December 1, 2019.
- “The principles of justice are also categorical imperatives in Kant’s sense. . . . The validity of the principle does not presuppose that one has a particular desire or aim. Whereas a hypothetical imperative by contrast does assume this: it directs us to take certain steps as effective means to achieve a specific end. . . . To act from the principles of justice is to act from categorical imperatives in the sense that they apply to use whatever in particular our aims are. This simply reflects the fact that no such contingencies appear as premises in their derivation. . . . My suggestion is that we think of the original position as the point of view from which noumenal selves see the world” (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 253, 255).
- A more general principle, the categorical imperative is thought to imply all such rules: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This is not far from Rawls’s veil of ignorance which also supposedly decides on binding principles of justice independent of anyone’s particular interests.
- Kant and many philosophers would say it’s a mistake to suppose that reasons only come in this form. They’d suggest that some kinds of actions are simply reasons unto themselves or instantiate some kind of “intrinsic” ends. It’s a fair point that having a reason for action shouldn’t require pointing to an infinite regress of means to ends. But Kant’s particular account of why actions that adhere to categorical imperatives are intrinsically rational is notoriously unclear. It has something to do with their exhibiting “autonomy,” the autonomy that comes from not being motivated by interests (which he describes as “heteronomous”). Here Kant thinks that one’s motivation by interests is what makes one subject to deterministic laws of the natural world, and one can achieve some measure of autonomous freedom only if one is somehow motivated by a principle that emanates from beyond the natural, phenomenal world. Only if one is motivated by the moral law itself and hence acting according to a categorical imperative is one thereby somehow free from causal determinism and therefore “autonomous.” Obviously, the idea of motivation by the dictates of a noumenal self which exists somehow apart from the observable world is a paradigmatically non-naturalistic account.
- Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, James W. Ellington (trans.), (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1981), 54–55.
- Allen G. Wood, “Rational Theology, Moral Faith, and Religion,” Paul Guyer (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 402–3.
- See Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Guyer, Wood, trans. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 114–17, (B xxiv-xxxi).
- Martin Schönfeld and Michael Thompson, “Kant’s Philosophical Development,” Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019).
- Katarzyna Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- A. Sidgwick and E. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (London and New York: MacMillan, 1906), 37, cited in Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe, 4.
- In his later days Sidgwick never abandoned the legend. Lazari-Radek and Singer report that he “formed a group to explore, by scientific methods, such questions as whether there is survival after death of the body and, as one member of the group put it, ‘Is the universe friendly?’” (The Point of View of the Universe, 9).
- Peter Singer, “Afterword to the 2011 edition,” The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 200–201.
- J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977), 24.
- J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, 40.
- As philosopher Richard Joyce (a follower of Mackie) suggests: if our moral capacities were only a product of evolution (a historical process with no sensitivity to philosophic truth), this could even lead us to question the truth of our moral beliefs. If we did have reason to think our moral capacities are evolved, and we have no reason to think that ancient evolutionary history was somehow sensitive to allegedly impartial moral truths about right or wrong, the evolutionary origin of our moral capacities could actually explain away any naturalistic basis for our beliefs about morality. If we only believe cruelty is wrong because believing that helped our tribal ancestors to get along and reproduce, we don’t need to suppose that belief is true to understand how it had its effectiveness. All we need to posit is the evolution of a useful fiction to explain the adaptive value of moral beliefs. The naturalistic razor would slash away any additional assumptions. Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality (Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books/MIT, 2007), 211.
- One philosopher who realizes how eudaemonism offers an alternate conception of morality which is not subject to the usual naturalistic critiques of moral skeptics is Paul Bloomfield. See his remarkable and underappreciated paper “Error Theory and the Concept of Morality,” Metaphilosophy 44, no. 4 (July 2013), 451, 469. (The paper is underappreciated because no philosopher has ever deigned to reply to his central argument.) I made a similar point in an earlier but much rougher paper (on which Bloomfield offered comments), “Metaethical Problems for Ethical Egoism Reconsidered.”
- For notable neo-Aristotelians, see Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), and Michael Thompson, Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
- For Rand’s full argument, see “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964).
- Ayn Rand, “Causality versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 133.
- Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It, 84.