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Imagine There’s No Morality

by Bill Meacham on May 12th, 2013

Here is a thought experiment for you: What if there aren’t really any moral rules? What if moral rules, unlike physical objects and events, do not actually exist independently of us?

What if God (however you conceive that entity) does not exist and hence can give us no commands? (This is the view of the atheists.) Or, if God does exist, what if God does not command us to do (or not do) anything? (This is the view of many deists.) Or what if there is in principle no way of knowing whether God exists and hence no way of knowing what the divine commands might be? (This is the view of the agnostics.)

Furthermore, what if there is no unseen realm of moral rules, obligations, rights and responsibilities existing independently of us? (This is the¬†view called “moral anti-realism.”) What if morality is only constructed socially; and, being socially constructed, can be socially deconstructed if we like?

How then should we figure out how to live our lives? Or, since “should” often refers to a moral rule or obligation, what would be the best way or even a pretty good way to figure out how to live our lives?

In the absence of moral rules we would have to use a form of reasoning I call ethical inference to argue from factual premises to recommendations. For example:

  • People who eat a balanced, nutritious diet are healthier than people who don’t.
  • Sarah wants to be healthy.
  • Therefore, Sarah should eat a balanced, nutritious diet.

That “should” is a recommendation of prudence, not a moral command. It is in what I call the “goodness paradigm” of language instead of the “rightness paradigm.”(1) The goodness paradigm makes recommendations instead of giving commmands; and it does so on the basis of the observable effects of our actions, rather than an appeal to moral rules. Such recommendations do not follow with deductive certainty, but are the result of practical reasoning. If the premises are true, reasonable and appropriate, then the conclusion follows with enough practical credence to warrant acting on it.

The first premise of the ethical inference is factual. We can assess its truth by making observations, administering surveys, performing scientific experiments and so forth. That is one of the advantages of the goodness paradigm, that its claims can be objectively verified.

The second premise is also factual, but it pertains to a person’s desires or intentions. If Sarah has no desire to be healthy, then she has no reason to follow the advice.

So the philosophical question becomes, what should we desire? Or, if we don’t like the term “should,” what is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved actually to strive to achieve it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer: eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing,” “happiness” or “fulfillment.” What we all by nature want and try to achieve is to survive, thrive and feel happy and fulfilled. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that this desire is fundamental and essential to all humans as rational beings that have needs.(2) And if you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it. (And once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled.) So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.

Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish? How are we constituted, how do we function, what is good for us and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?

We can answer the question about human nature in two ways, idiosyncratically and generically. By “idiosyncratically” I mean that each of us has certain talents and abilities, and it makes sense for us to pursue and nurture the talents we have, and not the ones we don’t. If someone has a talent for music but not much athletic ability, that person will be more successful in life and happier by practicing music than by practicing basketball. The opposite would be true for a musically inept athlete.

By “generically” I mean that there are certain functions and abilities we all have by virtue of being human. Hence, it makes sense for us to nurture and expand those functions and abilities. And what are they? Well, I have written a whole book about the subject; it’s a bit much to summarize here. But one thing is common to both the idiosyncratic and generic approaches: self-knowledge.

Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(3) That’s not a moral command; it’s just good advice. And it is probably the best advice any of us will ever receive.


(1) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”

(2) Versenyi, “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?”

(3) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”


Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication

Versenyi, Laszlo. “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?” Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 3 (April, 1970), pp. 240-242. Online publication as of 12 October 2010.

Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication as of 10 May 2013.

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