On Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals

Sam Harris, in his book The moral landscape, argued that morals are objective, and he has recently issued a challenge inviting people to refute him. Richard Carrier supports Harris’s claim, though prefers his own formulation of it.

I regard morals as subjective rather than objective so want to address Carrier’s argument. I summarise that argument here, though note that I am re-ordering it and partially paraphrasing. Carrier gives a series of propositions:

1. Humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life.
2. What will maximize such satisfaction is an empirical fact that science can discover.
3. Such things are often common across humans.

I agree on all 3 points so far. “Satisfaction” here should be interpreted broadly, as a well-being that gives emotional satisfaction and contentment. It’s also true that humans worldwide are very similar, and that what will lead to contentment overlaps strongly between humans. Note, though, that people also differ in their personality, and can have different preferences.

Carrier’s argument then continues with:

4. All “oughts” are hypothetical imperatives of the form “if you want to achieve X then you ought to do Y”.

Again, I agree. This point is crucial to the discussion of morality and Carrier does well to emphasize it. “Ought” statements are not abstract, they are about achieving a goal, and without that goal being specified they don’t have meaning.

So where are we so far? First, everything above is descriptive rather than normative. We have asserted that humans seek a goal of well-being. If you are seeking that goal then you “ought” to purse certain actions to achieve it, and science can tell you which actions. Since you are seeking that goal then you ought to follow those actions.

Then Carrier puts forward the crucial step:

5. The moral is that which you ought to do above all else.

This is where I part company with Carrier’s argument. He has correctly proposed that “oughts” relate to goals, yet in this premise he treats an “ought” as standalone, as divorced from the goal. Whether the action that you “ought” to do is moral depends entirely on what goal resulted in the “ought” and whether that goal is moral. For example, “if you want to commit genocide, then you ought to invest in some weapons of mass destruction”, does not lead to that investment being moral unless the goal is also moral.

But, a defender of this argument might reply, we’re considering here the goal of pursuing well-being and satisfaction, because that’s what humans do, what they want. Yes it is what humans do, but one can’t leap from “humans do that” or even “humans want that” to “pursuing that goal is moral”. That is begging the entire question.

Sam Harris, in his version of the argument, accepts this and just declares by fiat that the pursuit of well-being is what is defined as “moral”. I disagree with Harris, in that I consider this step to be subjective, and thus incompatible with a claim to an objective system of morals, and I don’t see that Carrier has got round that difficulty either.

Yes, humans do seek well-being and satisfaction, and they seek lots of other things (food, sex, power, children, friendship, fame, etc), and some of these things are compatible with and increase long-term well-being, and others decrease it. Still, I don’t see an objective justification for singling out one over-riding human goal and declaring the pursuit of that one to be what is “moral”. Even if it is what humans want overall, that is still referring to an entirely subjective standard — human opinion, preference and feeling — at the root of the moral system.

Carrier asks “Which of these premises do you reject?”, my answer is that it is the premise: “The moral is that which you ought to do above all else”, and I reject it because it is incompletely stated. As Carrier himself says: “all ‘ought’ statements are hypothetical imperatives”, they are “if, then” conditionals. Thus Carrier’s premise is incomplete without specifying the “if” goal, and thus begs the whole question. Once you try expanding that premise to include the goal, then it becomes either arbitrary or subjective.

Carrier defends his premise saying:

“Because if you mean something else by “moral,” I will have this other thing, this thing which you really ought to do above all else, which means above your thing, too, whatever it is. So I will have something even more imperative than yours …

But, whether that thing is more imperative, whether you “really ought to do it above all else” depends entirely on what one’s goal is! Yes you can say that pursuing human well-being and satisfaction is the goal, from which morality derives, but that is an extra premise, an axiom, not something that either Carrier or Harris have derived from fundamentals.

I should say at this point that I do agree with Harris and Carrier that — in my opinion — pursuing human well-being and life satisfaction is indeed what is moral. But I recognise that this derives from my feelings, my opinions, what would satisfy and please me. Thus, it is subjective (though, of course, given the similarities between humans there would be strong overlap between what I and what others would consider to be moral).

Indeed, I don’t see how any moral system that is about promoting human well-being and satisfaction can be anything other than subjective. From Oxford Dictionaries:

Subjective: (1) based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions …

For something to be “objectively” moral it would have to be in-principle possible that something could be “morally virtuous” even if every human hated it and even if it made humans miserable. If that is considered to be self-contradictory, if pleasing humans is considered the goal of morality, then that is the very definition of a “subjective” moral system. (And note that saying that morals are subjective is in no way to denigrate them; this paragraph surely shows why a subjective moral system is far better for us than any objective one.)

Other objections to the Carrier/Harris argument (which have been widely discussed so I’ll just state them briefly) include:

If you ask why we have moral sentiments, why we are moral animals, it is because evolution has programmed them into us. And evolution will not have done that to maximise human satisfaction or well-being (evolution couldn’t care about that), it would have done it to maximise reproductive success (by facilitating social interaction and cooperation). Thus, the claim that morals are objectively about human well-being is at odds with what morals are, where they came from.

Secondly, under Carrier’s scheme pursuing one’s own interests and well-being would be just as “moral” as advancing someone else’s. This seems to me a category error, in that morals are “about” how humans treat each other, not about how one treats oneself. There’s nothing wrong with someone seeking self-advancement and ones own ends, but this is not generally considered to come under the category of “moral” consideration.

Third, if one is asserting an “objective” system of morals then one would need some way of quantifying well-being and life satisfaction. That is necessary since you often have to play off one consideration against another, and in order to choose you need to know which counts for more. No objective scheme for numerically quantifying these things has been proposed, and I don’t see how it can be, particularly since humans are different and will value different things differently.

And lastly, any objective system would need a method of aggregating “well-being” across different humans (across families, friends, local communities, national communities, and international communities). Again this is necessary since one will have to trade one group’s desires against another’s, and again no objective system has been proposed for this.

You may indeed offer an opinion of such a scheme, but if you want an objective system then you need to arrive objectively at such a scheme. Thus, you would arrive at questions such as “If the action will harm and displease George by 8 moral units, but lead to greater well-being of six other people by 2 moral units each, should I do it?”, and you’d have to supply answers such as “yes, since 12 is greater than 8”.

The whole advantage of accepting that morals are subjective is that it follows that there are no objective ways of quantifying such things and no objective ways of aggregating across people (though of course that doesn’t stop you from offering an opinion about whether an action is moral; and nor does it stop you supporting your opinion by pointing to evidence about the well-being that such an action would lead to).

I don’t see any disadvantages to accepting that morals are subjective, and I see much advantage and clarity of understanding in doing so. The hankering after the idea that morals are objective (or the idea that we somehow need objective morals) is a total red herring.

Update: After discussing the matter with Dr. Carrier on his blog, and after reading his chapter Moral Facts Naturally Exist, from the compilation The End of Christianity, where Carrier presents his argument more fully, I have written a

20 thoughts on “On Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals

  1. Geoff

    The scientific community would be better off if it dismissed the entire notion of morality as nothing but a social construct. It is unfortunate that scientist have tried to adopt the concept of morality in order to argue against and discredit religion. I realize that it is convenient to argue against religion by adopting common language, but that tends to lead to irrational arguments. Carrier’s proposition that “humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life” is laughable. Indeed, “Satisfaction” has to be interpreted so broadly that it is a meaningless statement. Why not discard morality and draw on classic Darwinian inspired propositions as the true driving force for human behavior? Although I like your concept of subjective morality better than Carrier, Harris, and others, I feel that your cultural background and bias leave you unable to completely discard the concept of morality in favor of science.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Geoff, I’m afraid I can’t agree with you that morality is merely a social construct, I consider it part of our biology and our genetic programming. I don’t see that we can discard it, since humans would not be able to live in our highly social and cooperative way of life without a “social glue” that governs how we interact with each other, which is what morality is.

  2. Geoff

    Coel, I think we agree more than we disagree. It would seem to me that you have taken “morality” to be synonymous with a “code of conduct” that “works” for society. I would certainly agree that having a common “code of conduct” produces a more productive society. While the basic rules that produce a functioning society are tied to genetic programming, others accepted rules appear not to be. Our sense of morality has evolved much faster than our genetic programming. Much of that evolution has been through trial and error in response to changing environment. Inevitably that leads to social constructs in addition to true “advances” in “code of conduct.”

    My primary objection to the use of “morality” to describe any of this stems from morality being synonymous with “good” and “bad” behavior. Defining “good” and “bad” behavior is simply too much of a “black and white” approach to a very complex scientific topic. I realize you’ve added “subjective” to provide more complexity, but I still prefer avoidance of the term “morality” all together when describing “social glue.”

    Reply
  3. Barcs

    I can’t really get past Carrier’s first proposition:

    1. Humans attempt to achieve satisfaction with their life.

    Do they? I might be sitting on my couch watching TV rather than going outside and getting some exersice. I know that if I did the latter I would be more satisfied with my life, and yet there I am, watching a rerun of the Simpsons. If the above proposition does not imply that humans attempt to maximise their satifaction with life then exactly how much satisfaction do humans require? Any answer to that question has to be a value judgement, and then the whole premise and anything that comes from it is virtually meaningless.

    So it’s no surprise that the other thing that didn’t stick with me is, as you noted, that even if I did go out for a walk around the park instead of watching the telly then to Carrier that is a moral action. Really?

    I much prefer Harris’ version as you describe it. That he just declares by fiat that the pursuit of well-being is what is defined as “moral”. And even if you say that’s not objective I say so be it, and agree entirely with your final paragraph.

    Reply
  4. Neil Rickert

    2. What will maximize such satisfaction is an empirical fact that science can discover.

    I’ll disagree with that. It seems to me that satisfaction is already subjective.

    I agree with your final conclusion, that morality is subjective. I’m puzzled that Harris and Carrier want to argue otherwise. It’s true that theists claim that only a theist can have objective morality, and perhaps they are trying to defeat that claim. However, I see the theists as obviously wrong in making that claim, though I don’t doubt that some of them have successfully deluded themselves.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I’ll disagree with that. It seems to me that satisfaction is already subjective.

      True, but one can make objective statements about subjective experiences. For example “many people like chocolate” is objectively true, even though them liking chocolate is subjective.

  5. Pingback: Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals — redux | coelsblog

  6. Richard Wein

    Hi Coel,

    I just found my way to your blog. Lots of good stuff here.

    I would suggest it’s a mistake to agree with Carrier’s #4. Yes, the only true ought statements are statements about how to achieve goals. But moral ought statements are not about how to achieve goals, and that’s why they can’t be true.

    Also, on a point of detail, I would deny that the goals need to be stated. I could say, “If you want to catch the train, you ought to leave now.” But if I’m in no doubt that you want to catch the train, I could just say, “You ought to leave now.” The important thing is the intention of my utterance, not the grammatical form. Do I mean to impute to you a moral obligation, or am I just giving you practical advice?

    The way I respond to Carrier is by saying that he has conflated two different senses of “ought”: the moral sense, which imputes a moral obligation, and the non-moral sense, which just gives advice. He has then committed a fallacy of equivocation, jumping from a conclusion about the latter to a conclusion about the former.

    I won’t mention anything about Harris, as I don’t want anyone to steal my ideas and beat me to the $20,000. 😉

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Richard,

      I just found my way to your blog. Lots of good stuff here.

      Thanks!

      Also, on a point of detail, I would deny that the goals need to be stated. I could say, “If you want to catch the train, you ought to leave now.” But if I’m in no doubt that you want to catch the train, I could just say, “You ought to leave now.”

      I agree, but in the latter case the goal is still there and understood, it is just implicit. The “you ought to leave now” without any such context would not make sense.

      The way I respond to Carrier is by saying that he has conflated two different senses of “ought”: the moral sense, which imputes a moral obligation, and the non-moral sense, which just gives advice.

      I agree with you, much of our goal-seeking is unrelated to morals, and the moral aspects are a subset of our overall goal-seeking. I think that Carrier has started from the “moral realist” position that he needs to make morals objective, and from there has constructed the only possible scheme for doing that. However, I don’t think he succeeds, and to me that goal itself is a red-herring.

  7. Henrik Dalare

    Hi Coel,

    I should start by saying that English isn’t my native language. (If you start wondering…). Anyway, interesting read! Thank you. I do realize that this is an old post, but I just found it, so I’ll go ahead anyway.

    Reading Carrier’s post I felt the same thing you write here. Couldn’t quite articulate it as well myself, though. But the problem is exactly what you point it out to be – his moral framework isn’t derived from fundamentals.

    Combining statement 4 with 5 gives that “The moral is that which we ought to do above all else in order to achieve X”. Then in conclusion he says that if X is that which we want above all else, then the above statement is a moral imperative. (I think that’s the main part of the proof.) But it seems to me that this reasoning would work whatever X is, at least if I understand the word “moral imperative” correctly. (Moral imperative = A moral statement about what we ought to do in order to achieve some goal.)

    Anyway, your blog post ended abruptly with “I have written a”. If you have written something on this issue that you want to share, then I’m interested 🙂

    Reply
    1. Henrik Dalare

      Edit: I now saw that your blog discusses objective morality and the Carrier/Harris view repeatedly, so you can ignore my last comment.

  8. YF

    I agree: there is no objective morality, and secularists should stop trying to argue that there is such a thing (of course, ‘religious morality’ is no less subjective). Hume taught us that you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and as you rightly point out, hypothetical imperatives are still ultimately based on subjective preferences/goals.

    For an entertaining video which sums this up nicely see:

    Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, Part 7: Morality Explained

    Reply
  9. brianpansky

    “But, whether that thing is more imperative, whether you “really ought to do it above all else” depends entirely on what one’s goal is! Yes you can say that pursuing human well-being and satisfaction is the goal, from which morality derives, but that is an extra premise, an axiom,”

    Well yes. And he included that premise. Premise 4 says “4. All human decisions are made in the hopes of being as satisfied with one’s life as one can be in the circumstances they find themselves in.”

    Also, it is an objective fact whether or not someone has such a desire. That’s why Carrier says “objective”. Ando so all of your talk about it being “subjective” cannot undo this.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Brian,

      Also, it is an objective fact whether or not someone has such a desire. That’s why Carrier says “objective”.

      This is a confusion between (1) an objective moral system, and (2) it being an objective fact that a subjective moral system exists.

      In a subjective moral system, whether an act is morally right or morally bad depends on human judgement. In an objective moral system, whether an act is morally right or morally bad does not depend on human judgement. That’s what objective means (“not based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions”).

      It can indeed be objectively true that someone has certain subjective opinions, but that does not give you an objective moral system. Thus, Carrier’s moral system is ultimately subjective (and, in my opinion, he is wrong to claim otherwise).

      Carrier gives it as an observable fact of reality.

      Yes, it is indeed an observable fact of reality that humans have feelings and values. However, any moral system that rests on human value judgements is by definition “subjective”.

    2. brianpansky

      Coel, yes maybe he should use “Moral realism” or something. I’d like to leave discussion of preferable semantics aside. Semantics is an easy way to miss the point of any dispute about any subject. But the point of any dispute is what to believe about a certain subject, not what you call it.

      However when you say the following:

      I should say at this point that I do agree with Harris and Carrier that — in my opinion — pursuing human well-being and life satisfaction is indeed what is moral.

      it is clear you disagree with more than the mere semantic preferences you just threw at me. I seriously doubt you would emphasise “in my opinion” if you were talking about the truth or falsity of the theory of evolution (which is a fact/theory, not a “**personal opinion**”).

    3. Coel Post author

      Hi Brian,

      I seriously doubt you would emphasise “in my opinion” if you were talking about the truth or falsity of the theory of evolution (which is a fact/theory, not a “**personal opinion**”).

      Correct, I would not. But then the truth of evolution is an objective feature of the universe. Evolution is true regardless of what any human thinks of that fact.

      In contrast, something being “morally right” is a report of someone’s opinion on the topic. Saying that an act is or is not moral is simply another way of saying that someone likes or dislikes that act.

  10. brianpansky

    But then the truth of evolution is an objective feature of the universe. Evolution is true regardless of what any human thinks of that fact.

    So are the moral facts that Carrier points out we can find. Indeed, many humans think that homosexuality is immoral. They are factually incorrect, regardless of what they think of that fact.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I don’t think that any “moral facts” have been or can be established. Any such notion is a complete red-herring.

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