An Essay I Wrote When I Was a Moral Anti-Realist

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 29, 2010 in Ethics

When I launched this blog, I was a moral anti-realist. I thought morality was bunk. But in the course of researching and writing this blog, moral realism is one of the things I changed my mind about.

Here is an essay I wrote in November 2008, when I was a moral anti-realist. Which do you find more persuasive – pre-realist Luke or post-realist Luke? :)

Notice below I still called homosexuality a ‘lifestyle choice’, even though I had already stopped seeing homosexuality as wrong, and stopped believing in God. I guess I was still infected with the language of evangelical Christianity!

The Moral Crisis

We are starting to realize that the gods did not give us moral rules. Some of us feel like a kid finally moving out of his parents’ house: Oh, crap. Now I have to figure this out all by myself!

That’s going to be tricky, because moral rules aren’t written into reality like physical rules are. We can’t measure and test things to find out which moral values are “real.”

Morality is a human invention, like the idea of beauty. When you try to argue that an ape has more rights than a cow, or that lying is wrong in some situations but not others, it’s like trying to argue over which Monet painting is the best.

Of course, we try very hard to find an objective moral system. For example:

  • “The good is whatever maximizes human happiness.” (John Stuart Mill)
  • “All living things have equal rights.” (Arne Næss)
  • “Because the universe is condemned to entropy, the highest good is that which improves our ability to build and maintain complex systems.” (Brian Holtz)

The problem is that we can’t compare these starting principles to each other. For example, how could we know that John Stuart Mill is more correct than Arne Næss? You might say that humans have more rights than apes because humans have a higher level of consciousness. But then, why should it be consciousness that confers rights, and not some other trait? Why not body size, or one’s tendency for peace-making, or – as Brian Holtz’ moral theory suggests – one’s ability to build and maintain complex systems? At the core of every ethical system is a set of arbitrarily chosen values.

How we actually live

Of course, few of us think so hard about our morals. We mostly do what feelsright. Our sense of good morality, like our sense of good art, is mostly based on what feels good.

And what feels good to us is an accident of evolution. Even apes will drown trying to save their kin. That makes sense because their kin carry their genes. Likewise, loyalty and generosity can build your reputation in a tribe, which gives you better access to mates and food. If humans had evolved in a different environment, we should have evolved a very different moral sense.

Morality is also a product of the culture into which you happen to be born. If your parents and elders tell you that God watches your every move and he prefers that you not gather sticks on Saturdays, you might avoid stick-gathering on Saturdays – even if there is no other reason for you to do so. Many cultures thought charging interest on loans was deeply immoral, but modern cultures use this practice as the foundation of their moral system, capitalism.

The heart of the Moral Crisis

So it seems that:

  • Every moral system is arbitrary, and…
  • We usually act based on what feels right, anyway.

When we admit these two things, we are ready to face The Moral Crisis.

Most of humanity won’t face The Moral Crisis for a long time. Many people still take morality from the god they worship, or else just do what feels right. Even after we pass that stage, we will spend centuries scrambling to find objective moral principles. Moral certainty is comforting, and we will do whatever it takes to avoid The Moral Crisis.

What to do

When you are ready to face The Moral Crisis, what can you do?

Now that I’ve spent all this time building up The Moral Crisis, my best suggestion is to ignore it. Just keep living. Recognize that the universe wasn’t designed to fit a moral system. Recognize that people will disagree with you. Focus your action on the few causes you are (1) most sure to be beneficial to yourself and others, (2) most passionate about, and (3) most able to change.

Live consciously, but don’t overwhelm yourself. If you don’t act until you find the perfect moral system, you’ll never do anything. If you beat yourself up for everything you do that might be wrong, you’ll be ineffective and unhappy.

Expose yourself to as many moral opinions as you can. Challenge your own ideas. Try to live in harmony with the world, but realize this may not always be possible, or best. You’ll have to slaughter some plants and maybe animals to stay alive. You might have to oppose your friends or enemies or government to keep them from doing destructive things.

Try different moral lifestyles. Some knowledge comes only from doing. Be vegan for a month. Live in the wilderness and carry trash out of a nature preserve. Try complimenting everyone you meet for a day. If you have the skills for it, start a business to create jobs and a service that people value.

Another strategy would be to try to get conscious beings to agree on a moral harmony. Divisive moral systems that persecute certain groups (women, gays, unbelievers) are poor candidates. So are moral systems that may be too difficult for most people. For example, Jains respect life so much that they drink everything through cheesecloth to avoid killing microorganisms.

Imposing morality on a universe not designed for it is like trying to describe a spiritual experience with words, or trying to fit a baby stroller in the trunk of your car: it’s probably a good idea but you shouldn’t expect a good fit.

The future

If we learn anything from history, it’s that moral fashions change. Some things that were non-moral have become heavily moralized, like food. Some things that were moral issues are now neutral lifestyle choices, like homosexuality or marijuana use. Many things that were “bad” are now “good,” like making loans. Many things that were “good” are now “bad,” like conquering nearby lands.

Sometimes technology poses new moral questions. Should we make human clones or designer babies? Other technologies make certain moral questions irrelevant. Does incest matter if the adult couple has ensured they will not produce children?

Even as we confront The Moral Crisis, there is still hope we will at least make some kind of moral “progress.” Maybe we will grow the “expanding circle.” Here’s what I mean: Evolution trains the simplest creature to value only itself. For others, it makes sense to value the family. Social creatures are programmed to value the tribe. A human is part of a very large society, and may be trained to value his nation, his race, or even his entire species. As we learn about our heritage with plants and animals, some of us value them, too. That is the expanding circle.

We need not fear The Moral Crisis. Our increasing knowledge of the universe will only help us decide how to act within it. I think Anton Chekhov was right: “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

EvanT November 29, 2010 at 4:23 am

This essay is much more… to the point. It feels (for lack of a better word at the moment) that desirism is a lot more wishy-washy and has to do a lot more meandering to get to the point. Of course this has no impact on which view is actually right, but I’d say that most moral theories have made it a point to dance on the edge of Occam’s razor and see which one puts on the best show before getting sliced in half. Moral antirealism enjoys a certain degree of immunity because of its bluntness. I stand undecided for the time being, but I find this style of writing more rhetorically pleasing. But that’s just me…

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Lorkas November 29, 2010 at 4:55 am

At least pre-realism Luke seems to recognize that we can’t talk about human morality without talking about evolution. Sometimes post-realism Luke seems to dismiss it, which is one way to guarantee you will be wrong.

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Silas November 29, 2010 at 5:17 am

I like pre-realist Luke better, he’s easier to understand.

The main problem with desirism is that I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the podcast. It’s like trying to explain quantum healing really, really slowly: it’s still incomprehensible. What the f*ck are desires? (If the universe if mechanical, what point is there in talking about “desires”? Do you mean “preferences”? The ability to do something? Is a desire a state of the brain that yields a certain action at a certain point of time) How do they relate to morality?

Stupid questions, yeah. Maybe desirism is like advanced theoretical physics – it just takes a lot of time to understand. Maybe not. For the time being I just don’t understand it.

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Charles November 29, 2010 at 6:16 am

I think pre-realist Luke tells us to do a lot of things without giving us any good reasons why.

As for post-realist Luke, I don’t understand very much what he’s thinking (though I think the quality of his writing is greatly improved). In the last podcast, he does a great job on the hypothetical imperative (which I really get now, thanks!) but when he tries to address “should you want that?” he becomes very hard to understand.

I hope this is helpful.

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Mastema November 29, 2010 at 6:52 am

I vote for pre-realist Luke. As EvanT pointed out, there’s a certain bluntness to anti-realism, which I find very appealing. While I like the position better, but I think your writing has come quite a long way in the last couple years.

In your recent interview with Nathan Nobis, you did a pretty good job playing devil’s advocate for anti-realism. You were more polished and sophisticated than how you come across here. If you were still an anti-realist, and you wrote this today, I think it would be a very different piece.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 29, 2010 at 7:22 am

Lorkas,

Huh? My philosophy is thoroughly naturalistic. In what way do you think desirism doesn’t fit with evolution?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 29, 2010 at 7:24 am

Mastema,

I probably should write an anti-realist piece some time, since most moral realists philosophers would probably put my current views under anti-realism. :)

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 7:34 am

Hmm my post got lost somewhere in cyberspace. I think pre-realist Luke is more appealing. I just cannot stand moral theories any more that say things like this: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9537 . It just seems to me that those trivial hobbies were condemned before the theory was put in place. Escapism has good psychological effects on humans that I don’t think always thinking about the big issues such as science, medical research, charity has. I suppose on contrast always worrying about the big issues can have negative impact on a person. Humans need to rest their body and mind from time to time.

The other problem with that post is that the trivial hobbies (games, movies, escapist literature, music, and so on) create a lot of added value in the economy which is needed to be able to pay for medical research, science education, charity and so on. I think any rational moral theory has to take in to account facts like that.

Anyway I had enough of morality while I was still a catholic. The guilty feelings and all that. So since I have became an atheist (partly thanks to this blog and Luke) I just don’t have any interest in listening to moral theorists who go on with the same rubbish as my previous church did in condemning trivial hobbies, porn, sex and so and so. I think only thing we need moral theories for is identifying big moral problems, all the rest is just noise best left alone.

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me November 29, 2010 at 7:36 am

Hmm when I post as Juhou my posts are not coming through anymore.

I think pre-realist Luke is more appealing. I just cannot stand moral theories any more that say things like this: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9537 . It just seems to me that those trivial hobbies were condemned before the theory was put in place. Escapism has good psychological effects on humans that I don’t think always thinking about the big issues such as science, medical research, charity has. I suppose on contrast always worrying about the big issues can have negative impact on a person. Humans need to rest their body and mind from time to time.

The other problem with that post is that the trivial hobbies (games, movies, escapist literature, music, and so on) create a lot of added value in the economy which is needed to be able to pay for medical research, science education, charity and so on. I think any rational moral theory has to take in to account facts like that.

Anyway I had enough of morality while I was still a catholic. The guilty feelings and all that. So since I have became an atheist (partly thanks to this blog and Luke) I just don’t have any interest in listening to moral theorists who go on with the same rubbish as my previous church did in condemning trivial hobbies, porn, sex and so and so. I think only thing we need moral theories for is identifying big moral problems, all the rest is just noise best left alone.

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 7:41 am

strange my posts are not coming through at all…

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 7:59 am

Fourth attempt. After this I give up :)

I think pre-realist Luke is more appealing. I just cannot stand moral theories any more that say things like this: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9537 . It just seems to me that those trivial hobbies were condemned before the theory was put in place. Escapism has good psychological effects on humans that I don’t think always thinking about the big issues such as science, medical research, charity has. I suppose on contrast always worrying about the big issues can have negative impact on a person. Humans need to rest their body and mind from time to time.

The other problem with that post is that the trivial hobbies (games, movies, escapist literature, music, and so on) create a lot of added value in the economy which is needed to be able to pay for medical research, science education, charity and so on. I think any rational moral theory has to take in to account facts like that.

Anyway I had enough of morality while I was still a catholic. The guilty feelings and all that. So since I have became an atheist (partly thanks to this blog and Luke) I just don’t have any interest in listening to moral theorists who go on with the same rubbish as my previous church did in condemning trivial hobbies, porn, sex and so and so. I think only thing we need moral theories for is identifying big moral problems, all the rest is just noise best left alone.

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 8:01 am

I think pre-realist Luke is more appealing. I just cannot stand moral theories any more that say things like the trivial hobbies post for desirism . It just seems to me that those trivial hobbies were condemned before the theory was put in place. Escapism has good psychological effects on humans that I don’t think always thinking about the big issues such as science, medical research, charity has. I suppose on contrast always worrying about the big issues can have negative impact on a person. Humans need to rest their body and mind from time to time.

The other problem with that post is that the trivial hobbies (games, movies, escapist literature, music, and so on) create a lot of added value in the economy which is needed to be able to pay for medical research, science education, charity and so on. I think any rational moral theory has to take in to account facts like that.

Anyway I had enough of morality while I was still a catholic. The guilty feelings and all that. So since I have became an atheist (partly thanks to this blog and Luke) I just don’t have any interest in listening to moral theorists who go on with the same rubbish as my previous church did in condemning trivial hobbies and so and so. I think only thing we need moral theories for is identifying big moral problems, all the rest is just noise best left alone.

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 8:02 am

YESSS!!! on fifth attempt it came on without the link to this: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=9537

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juhou November 29, 2010 at 8:03 am

Sorry for spamming. Links are not coming through for some reason so I can’t link to trivial hobbies post on desirism some time ago.

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Tony Hoffman November 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

“I probably should write an anti-realist piece some time, since most moral realists philosophers would probably put my current views under anti-realism.”

That’s funny, because I was surprised that you consider Desirism to be a moral realism position. In other words, well I agree that desires probably exist, I would have guessed that Desirism is not a branch of moral realism because it still seems to stop short of asserting that there are real things that we ought to do. That is almost certainly derived from my own poor understanding of the concepts, but I would be curious how it is that you define Desirism as a form of moral realism.

Btw, I do suspect that the explanation that (my paraphrase) “desires are the only thing that give us reason to act” is so categorically different as an approach to moral theory (it’s ground up instead of top down) that it seems that training in moral theory is perhaps a hindrance to understanding Desirism; I think it’s funny that the people who seem to have the most education on moral theory are the most upset by Desirism. :)

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Reidish November 29, 2010 at 9:20 am

Pre-realist Luke was more consistent with Luke’s stance of metaphysics, naturalism. Trying to shoe-horn desirism into something that qualifies as moral realism is a fool’s errand. I’m surprised you haven’t concluded this already.

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Garren November 29, 2010 at 9:25 am

Requesting Luke explain what he considers the distinction between moral anti-realism and realism to be.

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Patrick November 29, 2010 at 9:33 am

I vote for pre moral realist Luke. I think desirism is a fine update to utilitarianism (acknowledging the mutability of desires, and therefore of utilitarian calculus, is important), but I think its hampered by its efforts to proclaim itself a moral realist position. I think it begins by pointing out that the typical definition of moral realism is incoherent and/or impossible, then after a lot of verbiage, slyly substitutes a new definition of moral realism that is actually obtainable and proclaims that moral realism has been obtained.

I much prefer Sam Harris’ take on these things, where he just flat out says that the foundational aspect of his scientific approach to morality is the assumption that human welfare is important, and challenges his opponents to disagree. If there are to be bullets, they should be bitten.

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Kip November 29, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I see hints of the “post-realist” Luke in the things the “pre-realist” Luke wrote. A lot of the things you are saying, are still true:

Evolution trains the simplest creature to value only itself. For others, it makes sense to value the family. Social creatures are programmed to value the tribe.

True. I’m not sure why people have commented in this thread that desirism is not compatible with evolution. Of course we have desires programmed into us through our genetics.

A human is part of a very large society, and may be trained to value his nation, his race, or even his entire species. As we learn about our heritage with plants and animals, some of us value them, too. That is the expanding circle.

And I think you are saying, here, that we also have malleable desires. We can change our values. This is the core of desirism.

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JS Allen November 29, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I like it. You approach the subject with admirable conservatism here.

And there is nothing wrong with arbitrarily saying, “It’s wrong to let a baby starve!” The idea that atheists would need to invent phantasmagorical “moral systems” to justify something like that, always seemed odd to me. If a Christian is allowed to say, “Starving babies is wrong, because a big Jew in the sky named Yaweh said so!”, then the atheist ought to be allowed to say, “Starving babies is wrong because it’s JUST WRONG!”.

The effort to invent overarching atheist moral theories always seems like atheists have been baited into a trap set by the theists.

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Lorkas November 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Lorkas,Huh? My philosophy is thoroughly naturalistic. In what way do you think desirism doesn’t fit with evolution?  

It’s not that you are non-naturalistic, it’s just that you seem to mostly ignore the subject of evolution. The only time I recall the subject being brought up is when you presented the naturalistic Euthyphro problem.

I’m sure there are other times you’ve talked about it that I just don’t recall, but it seems to me that it’s been largely ignored by you and Fyfe in your desirism posts. Perhaps that’s because evolution seems to support moral anti-realism more strongly than moral realism, which is understandable.

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other eric November 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm

i think it would be difficult to move towards desirism from any perspective other than anti-realism. so continuing some sort of exploration of anti-realism can’t really hurt your goal of evangelizing desirism.
i just hope that no one takes your labelling homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” the wrong way.

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Steven November 29, 2010 at 4:55 pm

While I agree with most of what anti-moral realist Luke said, what I think about morality is that while nobody can claim to have any moral knowledge, we can work things out between ourselves based on ration self-interest and that these agreements do have value, even if it is subjective and very liable to change based on different circumstances and situations.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 29, 2010 at 4:59 pm

other eric,

Lol, I didn’t even notice that! Apparently I was still infected with the language of my evangelical upbringing!

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Camus Dude November 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Well, I’m already an error theorist myself, so I agreed with Pre-Realist Luke before I read this article!

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Godless Randall December 1, 2010 at 12:52 am

pre-realist Luke all the way. i hate to break it to everybody but anti-realism is the only tenable position for an atheist at least until someone shows otherwise. and desirism isn’t doing shit except maybe stalling

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StrangerTides December 1, 2010 at 7:14 am

Just a note to agree with the majority here – the pre-realism stance is more convincing. Still not sure why you think there’s any justification for going further. Evolution has programmed us with a moral scale that goes from “be nice to others” to “be mean to others”. We choose to interpret that as going from “good” to “evil” but there’s no scientific reason to say that therefore morality is “real”. Yes, many of our beliefs about what is moral happen to agree with what most other people in the world think, but that’s just because we share a common evolutionary history. Really, what more is there to discuss?

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Kip December 1, 2010 at 7:54 am

These replies seem so weird to me. So, evolution determines our future? We are all fatalists now? We can’t change how we think, what we are going to do, and how we do it? We can’t set goals for ourselves? Perhaps you are right… it’s an empirical question… but I think that evolution has programmed us with the ability to change our programming. Or at least, to have our programming changed. And, that’s what’s left to discuss. First of all, apparently, whether this is true, and then, if so, what “programming” we should adopt (or what programming we should be promoting in each other).

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tmp December 1, 2010 at 8:17 am

@Godless Randall

Actually, since the strict definition of moral realism is about ethical sentences, if you define morality in a way that leaves out all the fuzzy bits, like “right” and “wrong”, then you can trivially be a moral realist. This, I believe, is what initially tripped me up about desirism(My definition of moral realism was wrong).

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StrangerTides December 2, 2010 at 5:06 am

blockquote cite=”comment-79459″>

And, that’s what’s left to discuss.First of all, apparently, whether this is true, and then, if so, what “programming” we should adopt (or what programming we should be promoting in each other).  

Okay, I can agree that this is left to discuss. What I meant was that I don’t see anything left to discuss on the matter of whether morality is “real”. It seems clear that our tendencies to think and act in certain ways are derived from evolution. We can discuss our choices to obey these tendencies or not, but how does defining certain sets of tendencies as “good” or “evil” help us in this discussion?

In fact, I just went and read the Fyfe article that summarizes desire utilitarianism ( http://www.alonzofyfe.com/article_du.shtml), and I have to admit I don’t understand how this is considered moral realism. I don’t see anything there that says that morals are “real”. What am I missing?

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Zeb December 2, 2010 at 11:20 am

I like desirist Luke better because he is more consistent. This essay still uses moral realist assumptions. You make lots of prescriptions as if we all know there is something wrong with doing nothing and being ineffective and unhappy; as if we all know there is something good about harmony and “beneficial” causes; and as if we all know that “moral progress” and “man will become better” actually means something.

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Kip December 2, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I don’t see anything there that says that morals are “real”. What am I missing?

Well, I guess that depends on how you define “morals”. If you mean “commands from God”, then no I don’t think those are real. But, if you mean “a system for judging good and bad behaviors”, then I do think that is real.

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StrangerTides December 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm

I agree that there can be “a system for judging good and bad behavior”, but your system can be different from my system. Shouldn’t moral realism require exactly one system that exists independently of what you or I think?

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Kip December 2, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Shouldn’t moral realism require exactly one system that exists independently of what you or I think?

Not necessarily, depending on exactly what you are talking about. I also believe in a “health realism”. I think there are right and wrong answers in regards to health questions. But, I don’t think there is necessarily one right health system. Or maybe there is. I don’t know. As Sam Harris says in his new book, there might be multiple peaks on a “Moral Landscape”.

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