Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals — redux

The Sam Harris morality challenge is leading to a flurry of blog posts. I recently disagreed with a post by Richard Carrier arguing that morals are objective. In a brief discussion in comments on his blog Carrier suggested that I read his chapter Moral Facts Naturally Exist, from the compilation The End of Christianity, where he presents his argument more fully. Having now read that work, and also noting Carrier’s second post on the topic, I return to the theme and expand on my disagreement with Carrier.

To start, I’ll declare that I do agree with Dr. Carrier on several major issues. For example, I agree with Carrier’s statement:

What will maximize the satisfaction of any human being in any particular set of circumstances, as those circumstances would be understood by that human being if they were reasoning non-fallaciously from only true beliefs about themselves and the world, is an empirical fact that science can discover.

Secondly, I agree that any “ought” statement needs to be of the form: “if ones goal is X then one ought to pursue action Y”, where science can tell us that action Y tends to lead to goal X. Carrier gives the example: “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity”.

Dr. Carrier then asserts: “Therefore the claim “you can’t get an ought from an is” is demonstrably false”. To be clear here, the “is” is the existence of the desire, the “I want my car to run well”, not merely the “I have a car”. Thus one is getting the “ought” from the existence of a goal, the desire.

Subjective versus objective morality

My first objection is over whether Carrier’s system amounts to objective morals (as he claims) or whether it gives subjective morals.

The root of Carrier’s system is “What we want most …” (or rather what we would want most if we were both informed and rational). He notes that our desires are a fact about the world, that the best method of fulfilling those desires is a fact about the world, and that from those two facts results an imperative that we “ought” to adopt.

Carrier says:

… this does entail that … moral values can only ever exist in the minds of the people who hold them


… for any individual there must necessarily be a factually true morality that is not a mere product of their opinion or belief (therefore it is not merely subjective), but is entirely the product of natural facts (their innate desires …)

According to Oxford Dictionaries:

Subjective: “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” … “dependent on the mind”.

Objective: “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts” … “not dependent on the mind for existence”.

The “innate desires” clearly are “dependent on the mind” and “what we want most” is clearly an issue of “personal feelings, tastes and opinions”. Yes, the fact that we have a desire is objectively true, and the issue of what desire we have is one of objective fact, but the desire itself is subjective. And since the desire, the “what we want”, is the root of the whole system, that surely makes the resulting moral system subjective. (Alternatively, if the mere fact that it is a fact that someone holds an opinion is enough to make any system built on that opinion “objective”, then there can be no “subjective” moral system.)

To me an “objective” moral system would be one that is independent of human opinion or feeling, such that something could — in principle — be “morally good” even if every human hated it and even if it made humans miserable.

I’m also dubious about Carrier’s distinction between human “opinion or belief” and “innate desire”, with the suggestion that the former is subjective and the latter objective. Aren’t these the same thing, or at least graduations of the same thing? A weakly held opinion might be different from a visceral emotion, but only in degree (for example, someone might have a deeply held visceral emotion about the idea of their own child being killed, and a weakly held opinion about the wisdom of bombing Syria in ways that might result in Syrian children dying).

What is “moral”?

The above discussion segued from “if/ought” conditionals and human desires into what is moral. To justify this segue Carrier gives a series of proofs written out in symbolic logic (see the appendix to Carrier’s chapter “moral facts naturally exist”). The crux that I want to dispute occurs early on in his first proof. He starts by defining the symbol v as:

“what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems”.

However, this surely violates a central premise of Carrier’s analysis (one that I entirely agree with), that any “ought” can only be understood as a conditional of the form: “to obtain goal X you ought to do action Y”. Yet here Carrier introduces an abstract “ought” naked of any goal. Thus I don’t understand what “ought” means here (of course one could supply ones own goal or treat it as implicit, but either is inadequate for a formal logical proof).

Carrier then uses this definition to assert (note that I’m writing out the symbols and shortening the wording slightly):

1.2: “a moral system” is “what we ought to obey over all other imperative systems”.

Again, I don’t know what “ought” means here, what the goal is (it could refer to the goal of being moral, but that makes the assertion circular and trite). The argument then continues with a second “ought” assertion:

1.3: “what we ought to obey” is “that which we have a sufficient motivating reason to obey”.

What we have “sufficient motivating reason” to obey then turns out to be what we want above all else, because that is, by definition, what motivates us. And what motivates us is maximising our well-being (because, by definition, well being is getting what we want, presuming ourselves to be rational and well-informed enough to know what is good for us).

So, 1.3 amounts to “we ought to pursue what we want above all else”. Again, though, the “ought” is naked. The action of the ought (“obey that which we have a sufficient motivating reason to obey”) is given but the goal is not. The full meaning thus needs to be of the form:

To obtain goal ??? we ought to “obey that which we have sufficient motivating reason to obey”,

or (as the argument will turn into)

To obtain goal ??? we ought to “pursue that which we want above all else”.

Yet these goals are not specified. The next line continues (combining 1.2 and 1.3)

1.4: “a moral system” is “that which we have sufficient motivating reason to obey”.

and soon after we get to: “The moral system that, in actual fact, we ought to obey” is pursuing our well being, what we want most.

My reaction is that this argument links together two different things, “what is moral” and “what maximises human well being”, by an invalid use of the word “ought”, indeed a usage that conflicts with Carrier’s own insistence about what “oughts” are.

Lines 1.2 and 1.3 get combined by the use of the same word “ought” in both, but the “goal” of the “ought” is specified in neither, and indeed there is no reason why the goal of the ought in the two lines is the same; and if it is not then they can’t be combined.

In short, the linking of “what is moral” to “what maximises human well being” is not established. Sam Harris, in his version of the argument, simply declares this as an axiom: that maximizing human well-being is what we mean by moral. Carrier purports to arrive at this conclusion, but I don’t see that it has been established.

Let me at this point declare my opinion that morality is indeed all about human well-being, but this is my subjective opinion; in my opinion acts which reduce other humans’ well-being are immoral and acts that enhance it are moral. But I also maintain that morals are subjective, and my opinion is an entirely sufficient foundation for a subjective system. But Carrier and Harris want more, they want to claim objective standing for their moral system.

Carrier argues that “moral truths naturally exist”. He says: “I have defined true moral facts as imperative propositions that we ought in actual fact to obey over all other imperatives …” and “True moral facts are the things we ought to do above all else”. Again, I object to those naked “oughts” — I have no idea what they mean, and suspect that any sensible meaning would just make those propositions circular — but I’d also go further and suggest that “moral facts” cannot be objective or “natural”.

The biggest reason (I’ve posted on this before but here’s a quick recap) is that our moral sentiments are feelings and emotions programmed into us by evolution as a social glue, to facilitate inter-human cooperation and hence enable our highly social and cooperative way of life. Yet, evolution does not care about human well-being or life satisfaction, it cares (metaphorically of course) about survival and reproduction. Thus I don’t see how it can “naturally” arise that morals are “about” human well-being when the thing that created and programmed them is all about survival and reproduction, not well-being.

Of course what we want is a different issue from what evolution (metaphorically) wants, so in our opinion morals can all be about our well-being and life satisfaction, but that is a subjective opinion, not a natural fact.

And that is why I argue that morals are subjective, a stance that solves many issues (in a cutting-the-Gordian-knot sense) that are otherwise troubling for the Harris/Carrier stance, or indeed for any other attempt at an objective moral system. I’ve written about this in my first post on Carrier, and in Six reasons why objective morality is nonsense and Science can answer morality questions, so won’t repeat those arguments here.

An individual moral system?

There is, though, one further issue in Dr. Carrier’s analysis that I want to address. His analysis of morality leads first to a morality for an individual.

There must necessarily be a factually true morality at the very least for every individual …

I dispute this concept since to me what morality is about is how humans interact, how they treat each other. Thus morality is a property of a group, a community. Of course an individual will have subjective preferences that differ from those of others, but the idea of an objective moral system that is specific to one individual is weird, as weird as a private language.

Carrier addresses this by asserting:

Only if what an individual wants most … is not the same for everyone else [will different people have a different moral system] … but that outcome is very improbable for members of the same species.

I suggest that this hugely underestimates the differences in what different people want (as a result of their different genes, of their inevitably different upbringing and environment).

Again, Carrier anticipates this, and meets it by asserting that only “unalterable desires that are fundamentally or instrumentally necessary” actually count here, since they are the only things we would actually want if “sufficiently informed and rational”. I suggest that this wildly underestimates human differences, and that relatively minor things do matter considerably to us.

For one person well-being might consist of listening to a heavy-metal band at high volume, yet this might be highly unpleasant to someone who prefers a mellow classical piece. Thus Carrier’s scheme of “universal” and “natural” morals is only going to work in an identikit species with little individuality. Yet, if there is variation, you immediately get into the difficulty of how to quantify and aggregate “well-being” considerations across different people, something to which there is no objective answer.

In short, Carrier’s defence of a scheme for a “universal, natural, objective” morality does not convince me that he is one the right track. I’m sticking to the idea that moral are subjective, that they are our feelings about how we treat each other. This not only works far better, but it is also in line with what moral sentiment are, where they came from.


11 thoughts on “Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals — redux

  1. Pingback: On Richard Carrier’s argument for objective morals | coelsblog

  2. keithnoback

    Can I like this twice? There would seem to be a category error of a sort in Carrier’s argument; namely that being human is not historical association, a category, but an actual state with actual consequences from which moral facts might derive. Might as well say humanity has a nose.

  3. Neil

    When I try to sort out what morality is, I can only ever see it as preference based at the most fundamental level. I think the confusion (and the debate between very smart, deep-thinking people) arises because there are evolution-directed preferences that such a vast majority of people hold, it gives the illusion that they are grounded in some sort of overarching universality. Deviations from norms are just considered anomalous (and rightly so, by definition), but only in the context of the average person’s “natural” preferences. The side arguing for objective morality counters that point by saying that our societies would fall apart if those anomalies became norms, and that’s a fair point, but it doesn’t address the underlying assumption. It seems to me that a middle ground position is that objective morals can be claimed but only if you acknowledge that it is more of a probabilistic assessment of an ensemble of individual preferences, which can change over time as we learn more about ourselves and the universe (i.e., people 100 years from now may view some of our highest moral standards as sub-par).
    The same sorts of arguments for objectivity could be made for judging something like physical attractiveness, but the baggage associated with those types of topics is seen as noncontroversial because it doesn’t affect something such as the law.

    1. Baal Shem Ra

      Perhaps that is the best way to define morality, not as an objective cosmic force, but rather a set of shared preferences based in the evolution of a species. We don’t really need a Platonic world of forms or a deity to determine “objective” morality in that context, just a set of shared preferences that fall on a normal distribution.

  4. Richard Wein

    Carrier: “True moral facts are the things we ought to do above all else”.

    Has Carrier asked himself what “above all else” means? What are these other, less important things that we ought to do? If those are the things that would help us achieve our goals, then moral facts must be about something more than achieving our goals.

    I think Carrier’s approach to philosophy is rather naive, and insensitive to the subtleties of language.

  5. john

    Excellent article and opinions. If only I wasn’t 2 years late to the party. Ah well, I am just starting moral philosophical journey.

  6. Josh Fordyce

    Great analysis Coel 🙂

    This clarifies Carrier’s position:

    “many of the sciences entail normative propositions. Medicine discovers scientifically how we ought to treat patients in order to cure them, engineering discovers scientifically how we ought to build bridges in order to survive earthquakes, etc., and for these findings to be true, nothing need be the case except the relevant physical facts.

    Morality is simply the proposal that there is an overriding end shared by all people (universalism) or within distinguishable groups (relativism), and just like an end in medicine (curing patients) or engineering (surviving earthquakes), this “moral end” would entail normative propositions (either for everyone, if universalism is true, or for categorized groups, if relativism is true). Since “moral end” is already defined by all cultures as an end that supercedes all other ends, then it is true by definition that moral ends exist, because everyone will have some end that for them supercedes all others in importance. And if we recognize that a person may think differently who is fully informed of all the relevant true facts and reasoning coherently from those facts, true moral facts would consist of what a person in this state would acknowledge as true, rather than what a person thinks is true at any given time, which establishes moral facts as physical facts in the same way as for medicine and engineering.

    Of course, one might raise many objections and questions to what I just said, but my book deals with all of that in detail” (

    What dyou think?

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Josh,

      Quoting Carrier: “ … many of the sciences entail normative propositions. Medicine discovers scientifically how we ought to treat patients in order to cure them, …”

      Yes, instrumental oughts of that sort do exist. “If you want X, then you ought to …”. These oughts have no objective standing, they are the product of someone’s goals or aims, and therefore — by the definition of the term — they are subjective.

      And if we recognize that a person may think differently who is fully informed of all the relevant true facts and reasoning coherently from those facts, true moral facts would consist of what a person in this state would acknowledge as true, …

      This does not give you objective, moral-realist “moral facts” (that is, ones that are entirely independent of human feeling or opinion). All it gives you is moral opinions deriving from a person, or from agreement by a whole range of people. But, so long as they derive from a person’s goals and aims they are, ipso facto, subjective. Thus Carrier’s scheme does not give you objective morals.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Josh,

      That’s a fairly long article you link to, but here’s a summary of my response. First, let’s distinguish three different stances:

      Moral objectivism: moral claims have truth values, and these are objective, being independent of human opinion.

      Moral relativism: moral claims have objective truth values; these truth values are different for different people.

      Moral subjectivism: moral claims do not have objective truth values; moral claims are people stating their opinions and feelings (though morality is no less important for that).

      That article argues mostly against moral relativism, and I agree with them there. I don’t regard moral relativism as coherent. But it does not do a good job of arguing for moral objectivism over subjectivism.

      For example, it quotes: Premise 2: “If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, it is wrong not to do so”.

      The article never explains what “it is wrong not to do so” is supposed to mean. This is my main problem with moral objectivism, it’s proponents have never explained what it even means. The only sensible meaning of that phrase that I can discern is: “… I would dislike it if you didn’t do it”. That, however, by the definitions above, is a moral-subjectivist account.

      They then make the analogy with health. They say: “We ought to value being alive, and nothing within medicine ‘scientifically’ justifies that”.

      What does that “ought” in “We ought to value being alive” actually mean? The only “oughts” that I can make sense of are instrumental ones. So does it mean “if we want to be alive, then valuing being alive will attain our aim”? That’s true, but somewhat trite and tautological.

      Medicine and aiming at good health are predicated on the fact that we **do** value being alive and having good health. That is a *descriptive* statement. A set of “oughts” founded on that statement is then a subjective one, since it arises from our desire to be alive.

      That article does not explain how one gets from there to an objective system, a “we ought to value being alive” that is independent of human desires, and nor does it even explain what such an “ought” would even mean.

      So, in summary, this article presents a very common approach to trying to make morality objective, but as I see it it completely fails.

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