A blog about systems and statements
Morality is fake news
Morality is fake news

Morality is fake news

People tend to hold morality as the ultimate way of life, arbiter of right and wrong, and guide for the psyche. Of course, with so many different views on the same matter, it is difficult to console and understand what morality really is. In a world where multiple standards exist, how ought one to act? I argue that the problem of morality is intrinsically unsolvable and we should stop trying.

There are many many different views on what constitutes morality. Plato says it is harmony in the soul, Aristotle says it’s living a good character, Kant says it is serving your duty to humanity, Mill says it’s maximising happiness, Aquinas says it’s following the will of God, and Nietzsche says it doesn’t even matter. And here’s the kicker: every single one of these proponents believe they have the correct belief and the strongest set of arguments. So what’s going on here? How can multiple completely sane and rational thinkers come to such widely different conclusions so confidently?

Conceptual Relativism

In Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus, Protagoras suggests that the reason people differ so widely in belief even though everyone has the same rationality, is because people perceive and conceptualise the physical world differently. For instance, a room’s temperature may feel warm to one person and cold to another. It would be ridiculous to claim that there is an objective way the room feels. “Each thing appears to me, so it is for me, and as it appears to you, so it is for you — you and I each being a man.” (Theaetetus 152a 6–8) Protagoras holds that this is a perfect analogy to truth (or at least a posteriori facts): one cannot have true knowledge of the world, rather only perceive and make inferences. And so, naturally, different people will make different inferences due to differences in upbringing, intuition, culture, language, and so on. In anti-realist philosophy, this is called conceptual relativism. The idea of unachievable true knowledge is further discussed in depth by Plato in multiple dialogues by means of Socrates’ Theory of Forms.

In support of conceptual relativism, Hales (2006) points out that wherever a disagreement about worldly knowledge exists, there is no greater objective non-circular foundation from which to mediate. There have been attempts to set standards in worldly considerations, like scientific methodology, political policy, etc. However, it is exactly this plurality of standards that confirms the lack of greater objectivity. Take for example scientific relativism: the emergence of quantum mechanics changed the classical physics view to a remarkable degree. The fact that the scientific community (which is renowned for its objectivity in pursuing truth) changed their very standards supports the notion that it is not possible to fully discover fundamental truth. Simply put, there will never exist a scientific theory (or any theory for that matter) that is unquestionable with regards to underlying truth. Whatever the common view is on the world, it will always be relative to a person, group of people, or even all of mankind.

Another way to see the basis of relativism comes from the philosophy of language. When a person A says that, for instance, “strip clubs are tasteful,” what is really meant is “strip clubs are tasteful according to my norms.” This is important because a statement can vary in its truth-value depending directly on the (hidden) context. While the latter statement may be true, “strip clubs are tasteful according to general consensus,” is certainly false. However, seeing as these contextual parts of the statement are almost always hidden or implied, MacFarlane (2014) argues the truth-value is determined not at speech-time, but at evaluation-time. In other words, a statement’s truth is dependent on the context of assessment.

This view results in what is called faultless disagreement. Imagine another agent B says that “strip clubs are tasteless.” Seeing as A affirms the objects’ quality (strip clubs’ tastefulness) and B denies it, there exists disagreement. However, evaluating the situation as a third party, what is truly being said is A affirms the statement under A’s norms and B denies it under B’s norms. This is perfectly logically consistent. If A’s norms say that it is good to express one’s sexuality and B’s norms say it is bad to objectify people, then both A and B speak the truth, simultaneously. This is similar to how a New Yorker can say abortion is legal and an Alabama resident can say it is not, while both being correct. To further help understand this view, Lasersohn (2005) says that statements about the world ought to be interpreted and understood in a fundamentally different way. Instead of the standard context including only time and a physical world, we should rather extend context to include time, world and individual.

Conceptual relativism is not limited to personal preference. A classical physicist may, for example, say that light is an electromagnetic wave and a quantum physicist may say that light is both a particle and a wave, and both would be correct, in the sense that their statements are true relative to the standards under which they operate. One view on physics may have fewer inconsistencies than the other, but neither is a perfectly all-encompassing model for the truth of reality. So, as long as one can accept that the truth-value of any statement uttered is directly dependent on context, conceptual relativism makes perfect sense.

Moral relativism

Conceptual relativism motivates moral relativism. Under conceptual relativism, real-world objects are perceived differently from person to person. How you view the world directly determines your intuition. For instance, it has been proven by psychology that being beaten as a child will lead you to be a more violence-orientated adult (Malinosky-Rummell & Hansen, 1993). Being more violent as a feature is caused by an internal intuition formed by past perceptions (being beaten). Aside from behaviour, one’s intuition also plays a big role in one’s moral views. For instance, whether public humiliation can be considered just punishment relies on one’s intuition of where to draw the line when considering harm for a greater good. Even if you make an argument as to where to draw the moral line, that argument too will have intuitive assumptions, ad infinitum. Because every person has a literal different world-view, every person will have a different intuition, and thus every person will naturally have a different moral view too.

Some theories

Let’s look at objections to some ethical theories. Deontology is a theory that views moral actions as important and outcomes as unimportant. As such, every person has a moral obligation to fulfil certain duties to mankind. These duties are derived from actions that are “always morally right” and are unchanging. For instance, telling the truth is considered under deontology as always morally right. An obvious objection here is considering harm for a greater good. E.g. an axe murderer walks into your house and asks you where your mother is. One would think it is wrong to tell the murder the truth seeing as it will necessarily result in your mother’s death. A deontologist would respond by saying in the average case truth-telling is the best thing to do. The layman’s intuition is that there should be exceptions to this rule, and the deontologist’s intuition says there shouldn’t.

Ethical egoism is a theory that puts the individual self-interest above all else. An egoist is obliged to act in their own favour in all circumstances. A common objection here is that acting in pure self-interest can lead to wicked occurrences, e.g. rape, torture and assassination. An egoist will respond by saying that every individual knows best how to satisfy their own interests, so egoism is the best way to satisfy everyone’s interests, even if it causes some harm along the way. The layman’s intuition is that altruism is more important, and the egoist’s intuition is that individualism is more important.

Divine command theory proposes that God’s will directly determines morality. Anything that God wills (e.g. the 10 commandments), is right and ought to be obeyed. Many object that God (in this case of Christianity) has and does will some horribly wicked things, e.g. sexism (Deuteronomy 25:11–1), human trafficking (1 Peter 2:18), sex slavery (Exodus 21: 7–8), cannibalism (II Kings 6:28–29), incestuous rape (II Kings 13:8–14), and genocide (1 Samuel 6:19), to name a few. A Christian ethicist will say that these things are mere tests God poses to us to determine worthiness to enter heaven. The layman’s intuition is that certain atrocities are too wicked to be considered moral, and the theologian’s intuition is that if they are willed by God, they are moral.

Utilitarianism is a theory that holds consequences as the only important moral factor of an action. So maximisation of happiness (at any cost) is the moral goal. A famous objection to this theory is the surgeon thought experiment: 5 good-hearted revolutionary leaders are in a hospital critically in need of a specific organ each. A perfectly healthy man walks in for an unrelated reason. The surgeon on duty has a utilitarian responsibility to kill the healthy man to harvest his organs to save the 5 world leaders, seeing as this course of action best maximises overall happiness. The layman’s intuition is that some moral actions can be categorically wrong, while the utilitarian’s intuition is that actions have no moral value per se.


From these examples, we can generalise that any ethical theory is only objected to by intuition. The only thing that makes a moral theory undesirable is that your intuition does not match that of the theory proponent. And as discussed above, there is no greater mediator that can resolve such a dispute (no moral measuring tape, as it were). Every single normative ethical theory is supported — at its very foundation — by nothing more than intuition.

So next time you’re in a heated argument over the morality of meat-eating, abortion, gun laws, or whatever ethical dilemma is the topic of the week, just know that in most cases you will not find common ground with anyone that opposes your view and your debate is epistemologically meaningless. The only kind of person you can convince of your view is one who shares your intuition, and convincing someone of something they will necessarily come to believe anyway is also — if not more — meaningless.

That there is no true objective right or wrong in this world may be an upsetting idea, but I say you can utilise it to live an even better life. Knowing that morality is subjective and arbitrary is an opportunity to free yourself from the shackles of your culture’s ethics and think for yourself. Truly discover what it is that you want and want to achieve in this world, and then devise your own plan to make it happen. Want to perpetuate human flourishing? revolt against the bourgeoisie? become a world leader? colonise Mars? own a Dyson sphere? Discover your drives and define your will. Shape your moral intuition to do what is right — not for your culture, or some 18th-century thinker, but for you and your world.


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