Living Without a Moral Code, part 2

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 29, 2009 in Ethics


In Living Without a Moral Code, I wrote:

I am in a rather odd position. I think that moral imperatives are real and knowable, but as it happens I know almost none of them. So, I don’t know how to live a moral life. I am morally bound but morally blind. I’m driving my life forward at 100mph but I don’t know which direction to turn it.

Why do I feel this way? Because my studies of moral theory have led me to think that desire utilitarianism is the most correct theory of morality available, and it does not allow me to answer questions easily by asking my “conscience.” Instead,

…desire utilitarianism says that moral imperatives can only be known by way of calculations involving billions of (mostly) unknown variables: desires, strengths of desires, relations between desires and states of affairs, and relations between desires and other desires.

So I want to be moral, but most moral knowledge requires tons of moral research that I just don’t have time to perform.

That’s a provocative thought, and there were two kinds of reactions among my readers.

Reaction 1

The first group said that I was confused about morality. They said there is no such thing as moral truth to be discovered, or that I was wrong to reject the easy-access moral knowledge that comes from the conscience, or that morality is not about desire calculations but about something else.

Those are fine responses. Obviously, if desire utilitarianism is the wrong moral theory – for example if moral noncognitivism or moral intuitionism or a deontological theory is true – then my post is simply on the wrong track altogether. But it is not my task right now to defend desire utilitarianism against all rival theories of morality. I will do that eventually in A Defense of Desire Utilitarianism. But that is a long way off because I have lots more reading to do first.

So my response to this type of reaction is: “Please wait. I will explain – in great detail – why I think desire utilitarianism is superior to all those other theories, but you’ll have to be patient. That writing project is a long way off.”

Reaction 2

The second group agreed that desire utilitarianism is the best theory of morality available, but said that desire utilitarianism does not lead to such despair over moral knowledge.

This is the type of response given by faithlessgod on his (excellent) blog, No Double Standards (post 1, post 2).

First, let me say that faithlessgod and I are both skeptical of desire utilitarianism. Faithlessgod says: “I do think this is the best approach I have seen to date and am always looking for better.” I agree, and I think one way to figure out if desire utilitarianism really works or not is for me to “put it out there” and defend it as best I can, which will allow the strongest criticisms available to surface.

Second, let me point out that my post was, necessarily, an extreme oversimplification. My contention was that:

[Desire utilitarianism doesn't] have any easy answers to any moral questions… [But] I don’t mean to overstate this. I’ve got some good guesses about what is moral and not moral… But they’re really just guesses.

Now that is very vague. How easy must an answer be before I would call it an “easy answer”? How good are my guesses about what is moral? Are they more like my “guess” that global warming probably is human caused (a guess which is based on lots of evidence but still many unknowns), or are my moral guesses more like my “guess” that human-like sex robots will be a popular commodity in wealthy societies by 2100 (a guess which is very tentative and based on very little knowledge)?

So my wording gives me lots of wiggle room, and that was purposeful. But I think faithlessgod’s posts are a nice opportunity for me to be more precise.

I will respond to his first objection in my next post in the series.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog January 1, 2010 at 8:24 pm

“Christianity isn’t Jesus’ fault.”

Correct. It’s all Paul’s bloody fault.


notjesusfault January 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm

After reading through your discussion on finding the “right” moral code to satisfy your desire to have some form of “bona-fide” morality, we at thought we’d suggest an alternative approach.

Clearly, a person doesn’t have to be religious to be moral. Morality can reside in a set of principles that’s predicated on something else…. In your discussion, utilitarianism and the pursuit of happiness seem to be strong contenders.

But what about this option: what if your morality were based simply on *valuing other people*…. If the context for your moral decision-making took into account the inherent value of other human beings, and your desire to honor and respect those relationships.

Yes, it’s true: the “golden rule” seems to mysteriously surface in this perspective. But if it’s uncomfortable to see it through a religious lens, you’ll be glad to know that Immanuel Kant, philosopher and father of modern rationalist thought, expressed virtually the same thing in his “categorical imperative”: act in a way that you wish everyone would universally act.

By honoring and valuing human beings, moral decisions are inherently directed toward the “good” of the human race, the planet on which we all reside, etc.

Morality is all about our relationships with each other; by focusing on achieving the best possible outcome in these relationships, everything else falls into place.


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