On the foundations of morality

There aren’t any. Nor can there be. And if anyone can refute me on this, I’ll be delighted. [Update: discussion arising from this post has convinced me that we all use multiple foundations, that they are mutually inconsistent, and that there is no way of choosing between them. My position here is very similar to that taken by Alex Rosenberg, of Duke University, who argues that moral judgments are not factual claims but emotional responses and spurs to action, and that there is no way of arbitrating basic disagreements.]

I have just finished reading Kenan Malik’s superb The Quest for a Moral Compass, which I am not competent to review, beyond questioning the judgement of those commentators who have compared it to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell is concerned primarily with timeless questions of epistemology, Malik with our present moral confusions. And unlike Russell, Malik doesn’t ignore the existence of China.

Let me add, however, that Malik is not to blame for what follows here.

There are some questions which of their nature cannot be answered. A notorious example is Heidegger’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This can never be answered. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of the totality denoted by “something”, or it is not. In the first case, part of the explicand is being invoked as the explanation, which is absurd. In the second, X itself remains to be explained, and we are no further forward. There are various ways of cheating at this point, either by allowing X to be eternal, and thus not requiring explanation (Aquinas), or by claiming that X is, in some mysterious sense, “necessary”, and therefore exempt from the need to be explained (William Lane Craig, Plantinga), but neither of these would convince anyone who did not already have faith in the implied First Cause.

I have come to the melancholy conclusion that the question “On what can we base our morality?” comes into the same category. This is not news. It was, in a sense, spelt out by Plato in Euthyphro’s notorious dilemma. Are things good because the gods love them, or do the gods love these things because they are good? In the first case, the moral code is merely a by-product of divine whims, and would change if those whims happened to change. In the second, the gods themselves must be appealing to some higher principle; what is it?

As Malik points out in his masterly demolition of Sam Harris’s philosophical pretensions, the argument generalises. Harris would have us derive morality from science, and in particular from the principle of maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Thus he would in principle justify torture, if it could be demonstrated as an effective way of extracting information, provided the gain in well-being achieved through our possession of the information extracted by it outweighs the victim’s sufferings.

But why should we regard maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures” as our measure of morality, even if we could quantify and define “well-being,” foresee how this would be affected by our actions, and accurately subtract one creature’s loss of well-being from another creature’s gain? As Malik points out, there is no reason why someone who accepts different principles – who regards, for example, inflicting torture as an insult to the nature of humanity that cannot be justified under any circumstances – should regard Harris’s arguments as the least bit convincing. As Malik puts it, Euthyphro’s dilemma applies with as much force to the appeal to the results of science, as it does to the appeal to the will of the gods.

Nor can we derive a solution from appealing to evolution, or to the nature of our humanity, or to the dynamics of history. It is perfectly possible to maintain, indeed I myself do maintain, that xenophobia is the result of evolutionary hardwiring, but nonetheless morally wrong. And few would maintain that to explain, for example, Stalin, or the Islamic State, in terms of historical forces is in any way to justify them.

And we can generalise. The same argument applies to any purported criterion for distinguishing right from wrong. We cannot live without moral principles, any more than we can live without confidence in the constancy of the laws of nature, but in neither case is it possible to justify our position without circularity. Perhaps we simply need to live with these uncomfortable truths.

To return to our starting point, the question “How do we justify our morality?” does not admit of an answer that does not beg the question. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of our moral code, or it is not. In the first case, we are invokingas justification part of what we are seeking to justify, and the most we can achieve in this way is consistency, not validation. In the second, X itself remains to be justified, and we are no further forward.

Which is simply an involved way of saying that there are no moral facts, only moral choices. And those who think otherwise scare me, even when they share my code.

The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik, hardback Atlantic Books, May 2014; paperback April 2015. Disclosure: I bought the hardback version, but I’m a slow reader. Extracts from the book are being made available on Kenan Malik’s onw website, starting, coincidentally, today.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on April 10, 2015, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. The first sentence (BOTH halves) contradicts the entire following (edited) paragraph. Sensational, but not reflecting what you truly think.
    I was directed here from a believer’s site, who wanted to show this link as proof that “atheist morality” has no foundation and faces problems finding any without god, so I think you have mislead him, when in fact, “morals are derived from emotion” was your actual position. (You allso say that there ARE other views, you just don’t subscribe to them.) ABSOLUTELY different from “no foundations, nor are any possible”.

    I think when you say that no foundation for morality, what is actually in the back of your mind is TRANSCENDENT morality,aka “objective morality” but not objective in the sense that it includes other people other than oneself, but as something independent from humans and built into the universe. However, you probably realize that for an atheist this very suggestion is a meaningless concept and maybe a misuse of the word “morality”, as it is suggests that morality can have any other purpose (either otherworldly rewards, or a form of ultimate unchallangable validation – a shaky concept), other than its role in human interaction.


    • I am happy to learn that this piece is still being referred to from time to time, especially by believers.

      The bumper sticker version of my position is as corrosive of the believer’s, as of anyone else’s, claims. The Euthyphro argument shows that we cannot derive morality by appealing to the will of God, unless we already have some underlying notion of what is moral, or, alternatively, unless we would be willing to regard the most abhorrent acts as moral if we discovered that they were what God wanted, and I am claiming that exactly similar arguments can be applied to any claim whatsoever to have found the foundation for morality. Hume, I think, would have agreed.


      • It is a dubious honor to be referred to to support a fallacious claim. 🙂

        In my mind the article is riddled with grave errors.

        First you claim that there are no foundations, then change your mind and make biological drives that foundation.

        If you were trying to prove that some SPECIFIC type of foundation (like some quasi-religious unversal “ought”) can not exist, you should have specified it because in this form “morality has no foundation” is fallacious.

        Implying that instinctive/axiomatic foundations are the same as no foundation at all, or that such a foundation in some way is “of no consequence” and is possible to ignore.
        Yet, I don’t see why for example an ethical justification of a biological drive could not exist.

        This article also seems to assume that once biological drive is found, it means that it is the ultimate source. I’d argue that the view that biological drives’ influence is strongest in the early developmental stages after which reason can build up self-consistent moral constructs which can then override the sum of instinctive considerations.
        The existence of a biological drive does not mean that: A. that drive’s existence can’t be morally justified, B. multpile sources don’t exist, C. what the drives say can not also be proven by reason.
        It is entirely possible to treat biological drives as simple nuisances that ethics must constantly oppose and suppress. In fact, often in history this was the case. (Both intellectuals and religions demonized instincts which merely lead to sin and cloud judgement before. You could say evolution rehabilitated biological drives in that sense, indicating that they may have meaning behind them.)

        You attribute the problem of profit-maximizing without setting limits on profit-reduction on trade-offs to Harris’ views on well-being as a goal, yet it is a general problem that you could apply to most moral systems, nor is it a prerequirement as a system that maximizes well-being within the limits of never going below X is a perfectly valid option.
        You may not have meant it like that but the way it is worded seems to suggest that it is a specific problem that exists for Harris, or for secular systems only, or ALL moral systems – and so easily misunderstood/hijacked by someone to “prove” that these systems inherently allow for such “evil”.

        While in the last paragraph you show that morality can’t be used to prove morality.
        Which is true prove, but is also not exactly news or revealing.
        It creates the impression in the reader that to seek an X is contradictory and self-defeating, when in fact it simply restated a basic rule of logic without eliminating anything much.

        I also don’t like this because it seems to be out to prove that morality can’t exist – yet morality DOES exit. It is no news that it is possible to create self-consistent logic while skipping checking if it is the one that describes THIS world. So you simply shot yourself in the foot.
        If we could prove that morality doesn’t exist, it is likely our definition of morality is what is faulty. Again, like with “foundation” I see no indication that you are out to disprove some specialized definition of “morality” and remain unclear about what you actually expect out of the word.

        So forgive me for saying that I am not particularly impressed, or glad that this article is as-is.


  2. Euthyphro’s dilemma isn’t a problem for the Utilitarian view, i.e. Harris’s. ‘Is happiness something which recognises goodness, which is itself independent? No. Is happiness what goodness is in itself? Yes. Doesn’t that mean that if stealing caused happiness, we should do it? Yes. Yes it does’. No issue.

    You’ve stated Malik accepts different principle than Utilitarians might, but as Singer pointed out, every ethical theory except skepticism is Utilitarianism plus something else. Malik accepts suffering is bad and happiness is good – sie simply accepts other statements as well. Malik doesn’t disagree with what Utilitarians say is the case, he disagrees when they say that there are no additional moral facts.

    As to justifying Utilitarianism, I break it down like so:
    1) Your bad experiences are bad (tautology)
    2) Other people’s are not less bad for your being less able to experience them.

    No. 2 can be argued as a kind of tautology, as equality should be considered a default position, at least if you’re into Bayesianism.


    • If we had a consistent quantifiable definition of W”happiness” (we don’t), such utitlitarianism would be at best self-consistent. For what answer is there to the obvious question, Why should we do what maximises happiness, rather than, say, self-awareness?

      “Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” And if you say that Socrates is really happier than the pig, have you moved the goalposts? The fact that such a question can be asked however you may answer them, shows that you have not disposed of the problem.


      • We measure utility each time we select which drink to order or what to do with our time. It may be vague, but no theory would say we act randomly.

        If we make ‘utility’ preference satisfaction then we should maximize preferences simply because we want to. It’s not ‘good’ except insofar as ‘good’ means ‘getting what you want’. Maximising self-awareness should only be done when it’s what you want to do. The question ‘Why should you maximize happiness’ turns into ‘Why should you do what you want to do?’. The only answer anybody’s ever needed to is ‘Because I want to’.

        I don’t agree with Mill about Socrates and the pig, though personally I would prefer to be Socrates, I think (I’ve never tried being either).

        I’m not sure how this presents a problem – we already assert that we want to do as we please (by definition). All we need to add is a principle of equality.


      • Thanks, but I’m not convinced that this helps. “Happiness” is a slippery concept; I don’t know how to quantify my own, let alone anyone else’s, you seem to slip from maximising my own happiness to maximising the total happiness in the Universe, and why should I accept your “principle of equality”?


      • I just use ‘happiness’ because the phrase ‘informed preference maximization’ is a mouthful.

        You should accept the principle of equality for a number of reasons:
        1) Every moral philosophy so far, just about, contains a principle of equality. So this is a minimalist position.
        2) Bayesianism. If you don’t know the probability of A occurring, the default is 50%. If you can’t say why your preferences outweigh another’s or where yours stand in relation to hirs then the default is equality. Any other option (e.g. that your preferences are more important) is an arbitrary choice, capable of justification. Simply put – the presumption must be of equality until we have evidence otherwise – the burden of proof is on people claiming partiality, not the other way around.

        3) Rationality. If an organisation or group of people make irrational decisions then clearly they are irrational. Taking society as a whole, it’s only going to make rational decisions if people’s respective preferences are weighted against each other. Just as we can be rational in the short term but irrational in the long term (as in when enjoying something which is bad for us in the long term) we can be rational on the individual level while being irrational as a group. If you think being rational in the long term is good, the same thinking should apply to being rational as a group.

        Hopefully this isn’t too brief – I’ll type the arguments out in full if they sound useful but underdescribed.


      • Thanks. Useful. There are strengths and weaknesses in both our positions, as shown by over a century of argument; so I’ll leave it there for now.


  3. Is it the case that ‘morality’ always reduces to an apology for evil?


  4. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Paul is always interesting and challenging, whether you agree with him or not. I tend to opt for a 1st century bob the builder


  5. Hi Paul. I’d like to hear/read your thoughts on Shermer’s new book, The Moral Arc. Are you familiar with it?


    • I haven’t read it. From reviews,it would seem to strongly overlap Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, which I thought excellent. As to whether one can move (as Harris does; I don’t know if Shermer does) from saying that science informs us about how the world is to claiming that it can tell us how to act in it, that is another matter entirely.


  6. Paul, can you help me out here. i’m actually just penning something on the “necessary” aspect of why there is something. For me, and my limited understanding of the philosophy behind it all, I have taken “eternal” to be synonymous with “necessary,” essentially interchangeable. From what you’ve written above this seems to be wrong, or at least I’ve gotten my definitions/terms confused.


    • I’m not a good apologist for the argument, but I think that “necessary” means something like “logically necessary” or “could not be otherwise”. I also think that Wm Lane Craig calls this the “kalam” argument, after the mediaeval Musoim philosophers to whom he attributes this, whether rightly or wrongly I cannot say. Sorry I can’t help more but “kalam argument” may be good term to search on


  7. Hi Paul, thanks for this.
    “On what can we base our morality?”: it is ours; it works more or less; we feel it is right. We have a fair understanding of its evolution via survival value.
    We can see a process – care for young, group morality, story to sign up to …, but we have no idea of how consciousness and feelings come about. However they seem to have survival value.
    There is, as you say, no ultimate answer, we have to value ourselves enough, to accept that morality is our responsibility.
    We are now in a global sitiuation where survival value is about the survival of humanity and life on earth – not amongst many groups of hunter gatherers. We cannot rely on blind evolution, we have to use our own intelligence and moral sense and work things out together – why do we have to? because most of us feel we want to – thank … ?,
    I don’t think that there is any outside help


  1. Pingback: Birth of the Moralizing Gods | Primate's Progress

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