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Moral Hallowing

by Bill Meacham on September 4th, 2018

A reader of this blog has asked me what I think of the assertion by Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, that “everyone engages in moral hallowing.”(1) In short, I’m not entirely impressed.

The term “hallowing” may not be familiar to many of us, as it seems to be a distinctly Christian notion and is now a bit archaic. The word “hallow” is related to “holy”, and to hallow something means to regard it as holy. Beck defines hallowing as “setting something apart, recognizing [it] as holy and sacred.”(2) Moral hallowing, then, is regarding moral judgments as being set apart in some way from non-sacred judgments such as the findings of the physical sciences and our everyday observations of what goes on around us.

In a series of three blog posts, Beck examines the notion of moral hallowing. In the first of them, he makes a rather strong assertion:

Everyone, even atheists, engage[s] in moral hallowing. Everyone evaluates human moral actions sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of the eternal]. Everyone cares about God’s judgment.(3)

On the face of it, this claim is obviously false. Quite a number of people care not a whit about God’s judgment, believing that there is no such thing. Apparently several of his readers made the same objection, because in subsequent posts he rephrases his position to something more secular. (I say “apparently” because he refers to comments that are not visible on his website due to a technical glitch.)

His rephrased position is that morality requires metaphysical grounding, meaning that morality must refer to axioms or first principles or basic norms that are not grounded in anything else. Citing Hume, he notes that you can’t generate a moral “ought” from a purely factual “is”. He says, “The biggest axioms in moral hallowing are concepts like ‘good,’ ‘evil,’ ‘should,’ ‘wrong,’ [and] ‘ought.'” According to Beck, judgments using such concepts are not based on physical facts and come loaded with an expectation of compliance, that they are binding on our conduct, in a way that purely factual statements do not.(4)

So far, so good. It is true that as a matter of purely descriptive psychology, moral judgments differ from factual judgments. As Steven Pinker notes, moral judgments have specific cognitive, behavioral and emotional characteristics. Cognitively, the rules they evoke are taken to apply without exception. Prohibitions against rape and murder are believed to be universal and objective, not matters of local custom; and people who violate the rules are deemed to deserve punishment. Behaviorally, we do in fact punish moral offenders and praise those who obey the law in ways that do not apply to, for instance, people who merely wear unstylish clothes. Emotionally, when our sense of morality is triggered, we feel a glow of righteousness when we abide by the rules, guilt when we don’t, a sense of anger or resentment at those who violate the rules and a desire to recruit others to allegiance to them.(5)

But to note these facts about morality is not to ground moral judgments metaphysically, nor is it to hallow them. Beck posits that a basic norm underlies all moral judgments. He says “The basic norm is an authorizing norm that is not authorized by any other (higher) norm. Consequently, the normative authority of the basic norm (i.e., why we must obey it) has to be presupposed as valid and authoritative. That’s the only way to stop an infinite regress.”(6) He thinks that everyone who makes moral judgments, if he or she thinks about it enough, will end up with a basic norm, although presumably religious believers will have a different one from secularists. But that’s not necessarily the case.

There is a respectable position in moral philosophy called “moral anti-realism”. It says that, contrary to popular opinion, there are no moral facts, expressible in propositions like “Murder is wrong,” that exist independently of our belief that they do. Physical objects like rocks, trees and mugs of beer exist in their own right whether or not we think they do; but according to moral anti-realism, moral facts don’t. There are various flavors of this position. One, noncognitivism (Beck calls it “emotivism”), holds that moral statements express only emotions, not facts. To say “Murder is wrong” is just to say “Boo, murder!” Another, moral error theory, says that moral statements purport to express facts, but all such statements are false because there are no moral facts. Another, nonobjectivism, says that moral facts do exist, but not independently of human minds; they are something that we in some way make up.(7) There are numerous permutations and elaborations of these positions, but my point is that someone who holds an anti-realist position might very well not hold any basic norm that authorizes or grounds specific moral judgments.

Beck’s statement that everyone engages in moral hallowing is both misleading and false. It is misleading because non-religious people don’t engage in setting apart anything as holy at all. They may set some things apart from ordinary life, but they would rightfully object to calling such things holy. To say to his Christian audience that atheists do what Christians do but they just call it something different is disingenuous. And Beck’s statement is false because some people, quite thoughtful ones, don’t assert a basic moral norm at all.

That said, there is no doubt some value (not moral value, just value for our own well-being) in thinking about the moral attitudes we have and what their basis could reasonably be. Knowing ourselves, as the Oracle at Delphi observed, is a great good. But it is not necessarily our moral duty.


(1) Beck, 20 August 2018.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Beck, 27 August 2018.

(5) Pinker, “The Moral Instinct.” See my book How To Be An Excellent Human, Chapter 21, “Our Sense of Morality.”

(6) Beck, 29 August 2018.

(7) Joyce, “Moral Anti-realism.”


[Beck, 20 August 2018] Beck, Richard. “Progressives On Judgment and Hell: Part 3, Moral Hallowing.” Online publication as of 30 August 2018.

[Beck, 27 August 2018] Beck, Richard. “Once More On Moral Hallowing.” Online publication as of 30 August 2018.

[Beck, 29 August 2018] Beck, Richard. “Yet More On Moral Hallowing.” Online publication as of 30 August 2018.

Joyce, Richard. “Moral Anti-realism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition). Online publication as of 27 August 2015.

Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human: Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life. Austin, Texas: Earth Harmony, 2013. Available at

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” Online publication as of 12 January 2008.

From → Philosophy

  1. Beau Quilter permalink

    Thank you for responding to these posts with clarity. Would I be right in saying that those who subscribe to moral anti-realism often still have a rationale for morale reasoning, but without acknowledging what you call a “basic norm” or what Beck calls “metaphysical grounding”?

    Also, can you elaborate on whether you are a moral realist or anti-realist? (even if the easiest answer is a link to another post)?

  2. Abraham j.palakudy permalink

    Morality it seems, must be closely related to the WHY question, as the moral sense of man will be directly connected with it.
    I would love to share one opinion on morality, connected with the WHY question:

  3. Danny permalink

    I see some parallels here to arguments about numbers, in what sense they are real and in what sense statements about numbers are true.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Right. I hope to include that very topic in a future installment. Thanks.

  4. Richard L permalink

    Well, I belong to the anti-realism camp, but only in regard to moral statements. There is no objective morality, and our condition is intersubjective.

    On the other hand, just taking an intellectual position like this does not cause my underlying, social ape moralizing and politicking to stop, nor could it, in a real human with human psychology. I am not going to stop behaving as though, or acting on my underlying, subjective belief that murder is wrong, or that hurting people generally, especially on purpose, is just flat wrong, or that initiating violence and coercion to enforce social norms is wrong, etc.

    So, the psychologically realistic position is both to become aware of one’s limited authority, to become aware of the limitations of ideology and the limits of epistemology, generally (this is just a subset of that). And to accept that just being aware of one’s proclivities is not enough to stop them, and more, that it is not desirable to deform or perform violence on oneself any more than it is to be deformed by or suffer the violence of others.

    In other words, I subscribe to emotivism but this does not prevent me from going through all of the ordinary social ape political behaviors and treating my favored ideological positions as real. I really feel such a moral disgust with cruelty that I will behave as though there were sufficient reason for me to rail against it – and there is! My feelings. I self-authorize. I allow myself to feel my feelings, and, if my judgment agrees, I will act on them, too. This is how humans really behave. And, if you wanted to, you could call my special relationship to my own selected moral hangups a “hallowing”.

  5. Parmenides permalink

    I guess some philosophers try to formalize ethics using modal logic, where the ‘box’ operator is interpreted as “is right” or “ought to do”. I haven’t studied such formalizations so I don’t know any more about it than that. But just that much is enough to say that a “moral judgement” would be a derivable proposition of the form “box A”; and obviously, to derive any such thing you would need some axioms that mention “box”, so those would be the “first principles”.

    So as with any formalization, we have two problems: (1) what are the best axioms, and (2) why should we believe those axioms, i.e. accept the moral judgments embodied in the axioms.

    Presumably everyone, including atheists and Christians, can discuss (1) more or less rationally, but then when it comes to (2), everyone has their own reasons. Now these points, after distinguishing (1) and (2), seem so obvious that it is hard to imagine an argument arising about them. I therefore claim the whole issue is a tempest in a teapot, with no real content.

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