Some Classic challenges to conventional morality

Morality and sacrifice
Can you think of situations where an agent’s doing
what is morally obligatory (by ordinary standards)
involves personal sacrifice on the part of the agent?
Note: by “personal sacrifice” we mean a net loss. We
can allow that doing the morally required act might
benefit the agent in some respects. We still have an
example of personal sacrifice if the net result of
performing the act (as compared to not performing) is
negative for the agent.
Two worries going back to Plato
On the plausible assumption that morality often
requires genuine self-sacrifice, two questions arise:
1. Are we psychologically capable of setting aside
self interest or are we by nature selfish creatures?
2. And even if we can set aside self interest in the
ways that morality requires, do we have reason to do
so? What reason, if any, do we have to be moral?
But does morality require sacrifice?
Consider some plausible candidates for moral rules:
 Pay your taxes (in a reasonably just society)!
 Conserve water (in a shortage crisis)!
 Don’t cause unnecessary suffering!
One might think that these are really just rules that
promote self-interest. After all, we would all prefer
living in a world where they are respected over a
world where they are rejected.
Sacrifice illustrated
Ranking options in the matrix: 4=best, 1=worst.
Player B = you. Player A = an arbitrary player.
Two lessons of the matrix
1. There is little doubt that we as a group have reason to
act morally. We would all prefer to live in a world where
everyone acts morally over a brutal state of nature/war.
2. It is a separate question whether I as an individual
have reason to be moral. The best world from the point of
view of my own interests is the world where, e.g., I don’t
have to pay taxes and my failure to pay goes unnoticed.
(Keep in mind that my contribution, were I to pay, is just a
drop in the bucket, so my failure to pay would not make
society worse in a way that would negatively impact me.)
Two kinds of sacrifice
Sacrifice for the sake of greater personal gain: You
might sacrifice something you value in the interest of
avoiding potentially worse outcomes overall (e.g.
having to go to prison) or in the interest of promoting
potentially better outcomes overall (e.g. gaining favors
from others). Call this instrumental sacrifice.
Sacrifice for the sake of the greater good: Morality
seems to require personal sacrifice (e.g. abstaining from
stealing or enslaving) even in cases where there is no
long-term gain for you. Morality often seems to require
genuine sacrifice of us.
Two forms of moral skepticism
It is highly plausible that conventional morality demands
genuine self-sacrifice. This aspect of conventional morality
has been a target of moral skeptics.
1. Some have doubted that we are psychologically
capable of setting aside self interest. The psychological
egoist insists that we are by nature selfish.
2. Some have doubted that we have reason to set aside
self interest in the ways that morality requires. The ethical
egoist doubts that we have reason to be moral.
Psychological egoism defined
Psychological egoists maintain that the ultimate goal of all
voluntary behavior in humans is in each case the agent’s
own perceived good or happiness.
A consequence: We are incapable of the sort of genuine
self-sacrifice often required by morality. Human nature is
such that we are incapable of doing the right thing
because it’s right.
*What are your initial thoughts about this theory of human
nature? What about it seems plausible or implausible?
Historical note: psychological egoism in
the British tradition
Major proponents: Thomas Hobbes (born 1588),
John Locke (1632), Jeremy Bentham (1748)
 Major critics: Bishop Joseph Butler (1692) and
David Hume (1711)
It would be rather difficult to find a philosopher today
endorsing psychological egoism. The criticisms of
Butler and Hume are often regarded as decisive.
What about irrational behavior?
Defined in the broad terms above, psychological
egoism is incompatible with cases of weakness of will,
cases where subjects intentionally do what they judge
to be the less good option as far as their own
happiness is concerned.
*Can you think of any (not inappropriate) examples?
What about irrational behavior?
The egoist has two options:
Deny that weakness of will exists.
Redefine egoism. Understand it as a claim about
all rational voluntary behavior.
What about non-rational behavior?
Suppose I have consciously developed a habit of
always pointing my right foot at a 45° angle pointing
away from the other foot when I do dishes. There is no
reason to prefer this stance over others. I just happen
to be rather aware of what is going on with my feet
and chose this way of standing.
*Why is this behavior non-rational rather than
irrational? Why does non-rational behavior pose a
prima facie problem for psychological egoism?
What about non-rational behavior?
Once again the egoist has two options:
Deny that voluntary behavior is ever non-rational.
Redefine egoism. Understand it as a claim about
all rational voluntary behavior.
What about animals and children?
Many non-human animals and young children do not
possess the concepts HAPPINESS and GOOD, and so
cannot have happiness/goodness as goals in the
relevant sense. At the same time it is plausible that
these creatures regularly do things voluntarily.
*Isn’t the egoist committed to an implausible view
about (adult) human action as radically discontinuous
with other animal behavior?
Psychological egoism expanded
The egoist might respond by broadening egoism in a way
that would encompass voluntary behavior in animals and
children (by avoiding mention of the good/happiness).
 A great deal of voluntary behavior is shaped by
operant conditioning (which involves associative
learning): the creature’s behavioral response to a
stimulus is modified by rewarding or punishing the
 Perhaps voluntary behavior is ultimately motivated by
the creature’s own pleasures/pains: the motives of
gaining pleasure/avoiding pain shape their habits.
This broader form of egoism looks irrelevant
The view that human behavior is (largely) a product
of conditioning does not show that we are
fundamentally selfish.
Presumably conditioning can produce unselfish habits.
Even if moral training operates on self-interested
motives (concerning rewards/punishments), the habits
which result may be altruistic.
A brief digression
This broader construal of egoism may well be relevant
to the further question: Do we have reason to act
Perhaps our inclination towards the moral life is a
product of conditioning. We don’t have any reason to
be moral; we have been manipulated to act
Psychological egoism reformulated
The egoist can suggest that adult humans exhibit a
distinctive type of behavior:
 Sometimes human/animal action is due to
reasoning: the agent infers a course of action from
(i) her current set of weighted goals and (ii) her
beliefs about the best available means to the goals.
 Only normal adult humans have goals shaped by
their conception of their own good/happiness.
 The egoist claims that we have no other goals.
For discussion
Summing up: Psychological egoism is a view about
rational, voluntary, adult human actions produced by
reasoning about means to an end. The egoist insists
that the only end or goal that ever motivates a human
agent is, ultimately, her own personal happiness.
For discussion in small groups (2-4 people):
Think of actions which present a prima facie difficulty
for this view. Does the egoist have something plausible
to say in response to the cases you have in mind?
Other goals
Think of human goals as things that we value, things
that matter, things we care about. Most of us
acknowledge a plurality of things that matter (e.g.
knowledge, creativity, moral achievement…), and we
explain people’s behavior as motivated by these
Yes, these things also make us happy. But don’t they
make us happy precisely because we value them for
their own sake?
Does egoism collapse into nihilism?
To deny the value/significance of anything outside
one’s own personal happiness is virtually tantamount
to nihilism about value.
If you think nothing outside you matters/has value, you
will have a hard time coherently maintaining that your
case is different!
*Do you agree that egoism is a precarious position?
The case of Finn
Suppose personal happiness is simply no longer an
option for Finn. Perhaps he is rather old and miserable
and is going to stay that way until he dies.
Nonetheless, Finn values scientific achievement deeply,
and he donates anonymously a great portion of his
money to AAAS (American Association for
Advancement of Science), knowing he will never
himself benefit from the donation.
The case of Finn: a quick reply
Perhaps the proponent of egoism should concede that
goals other than personal happiness can play a
modest role in decision making, e.g.
 serving as a tie-breaker when all else is equal.
 motivating us when there is no cost to ourselves.
The egoist might insist that these other motives are
relatively weak—not strong enough to lead us to
perform acts of genuine self-sacrifice.
The case of Jake
Jake believes current farming practices involve
excessive cruelty. Although he loves meat products, he
has decided to stop eating meat in protest.
Jake is not motivated by considerations of personal
health, and he is not hoping for or expecting praise
from others. Jake accepts that his protest results in a
net loss as far as personal happiness is concerned.
Love lost?
Doesn’t egoism have the unsettling consequence that
there is no such thing as genuine love?
Doesn’t genuine friendship/love involve a concern for
another’s well-being for their own sake?
(On the flip side, the egoist seems to be committed to
denying the existence of genuine hatred as well.)
Have we shifted the burden of proof?
Plausible conclusion: the egoist is making an
extraordinary claim.
Can’t we simply dismiss the egoist view as
implausible? Do we have any reason to take the view
From evolutionary theory to egoism
From a Darwinian perspective, altruism can seem quite
puzzling: we expect organisms to behave in ways that
are likely to increase their own fitness, not the fitness
of others.
 Altruism (by definition) reduces one’s own fitness
(e.g. signaling the presence of a predator), so how
can altruism spread in a population?
 Free-riders will have a selective advantage, so how
can altruism persist stably over time?
From game theory to egoism
Historically, scenarios like the Prisoner’s Dilemma have
been used to explain how cooperation can emerge
and exist stably in nature. (next slide)
But in an influential article from 2012, William Press
and Freeman Dyson argued that a class of noncooperative strategies (zero determinant (ZD)
strategies) will beat cooperative strategies over time.
Signaling: one-off vs. iterated
Ranking options in the matrix: 4=best, 1=worst.
Player B = you. Player A = an arbitrary player.
In defense of altruism
Adami & Hintze (2013) have argued that ZD
strategies are unstable over time, so cooperation
may well be the best solution to problems facing
individuals with potentially conflicting ends/aims.
The problem of free-riders can be addressed if the
altruistic behaviors are typically directed towards
kin or fellow altruists.
There is powerful experimental evidence suggesting
the existence of altruism in humans & other animals.
Altruism in humans & other animals
Molly Crockett et al. (2014) showed that human
subjects cared more about the pains of others than
their own pains.
Nobuya Sato et al. (2015) showed that rats
routinely prefer to assist another rat in distress over
receiving a reward (a piece of chocolate).
Mylene Quervel-Chaumette et al. (2015) showed
that dogs will share treats with other dogs—
especially when the other dog is a friend.
New question:
Do we have reason to be moral?
Our next issue does not depend on psychological
egoism. We can allow that you are capable of setting
aside self-interest. Our next issue is:
When all your self-interested reasons are shelved,
what reason (if any) do you have to behave morally?
Why be moral?
This question is a pressing one because morality seems
to require genuine sacrifice.
 Sometimes being moral is prudent. It can be in your
best interest to behave morally—e.g., to avoid
penalties and to gain favors. Set such reasons
 Other times doing the morally right thing can be an
unrewarded burden. But, then, why do it?
Reflect on your own case
Take a moment to reflect on your own motives:
Do you sometimes do the right thing without any
consideration of your personal welfare? If so, what
moves you to do the right thing?
If you have reasons to be moral, are these reasons
that all others can embrace as well?
Reasons for action
First things first: What do we usually mean when we
say that someone has reason to do so & so?
Talk of reasons: the central cases
Sometimes in citing a reason for an action/event, we
are explaining or stating the cause. Illustration:
 The reason the alarm went off at 4am is just that
Tucker is completely incompetent.
In other cases we are describing a justification for an
action or activity. Illustration:
 Tucker’s reason for growing a beard is that he’s
trying to impress Molly.
Justifying reasons
The plant has reason to grow in the direction of
sunlight, i.e. to facilitate photosynthesis.
Tucker’s reason for shaving is that he kept getting
food in his beard.
*Do you agree that the plant has a reason to grow in
the direction of sunlight?
Justifying reasons depend on
Tucker has reason to shave given his desire not to
have food on his face.
The plant has reason to grow in the direction of
sunlight given its needs relative to survival for
Let’s set aside needs and focus on motivational states
(wants, desires, preferences) as a source of reasons.
From motivational states to reasons
Having motivational states involves having goals/ends,
things you want. E.g. suppose you are motivated to
increase your physical strength. You want to get stronger.
Some actions are better means to a given goal/end than
others. E.g., spending time working out & eating protein is
a better means to increased physical strength than lying
on a couch imagining doing those things.
A person has reason to choose the action that is the best
available means to achieving her goal/end.
Goals & hypothetical imperatives
What our discussion so far shows is that what we have
reason to do depends on our goals.
Grow a beard! (if you want to impress Molly)
Shave your beard! (if you want a clean face)
*What we have here are hypothetical imperatives.
How might we express this sort of imperative without
employing the imperative grammatical mood?
Hypothetical imperatives without the
imperative mood
You ought to shave your beard.
You should shave your beard.
You have reason to shave your beard.
It would be practically rational or prudent to shave
your beard.
It is conditionally good for you to shave your beard.
Shaving your beard has instrumental value.
Are moral oughts hypothetical?
Are all oughts/imperatives/reasons for action
contingent on our motivational states?
If so, then we ought to understand a moral command
Don’t cause unnecessary suffering!
as short for something like
Don’t cause unnecessary suffering if you are
motivated by the welfare of others!
Moral oughts as categorical imperatives
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) famously denied that moral obligations are
hypothetical imperatives.
 For example, the requirement that you not enslave
another person is not contingent on your
motivational states.
 You ought not to enslave another. Period. The ‘ought’
here is categorical rather than hypothetical.
An obvious question
As we have seen, hypothetical imperatives arise
thanks to our motivational states.
But what could the source of categorical imperatives
be? Should we believe that there are any?!
Note that for Kant these questions are asking about
the source of moral obligation and whether we have
reason to be moral.
Subjective values and reasons
Suppose x and y are options available to you. You
judge x to be a better option than y, all things
considered. In other words, you value x more than y.
For you x has a higher subjective value than y. You
prefer x to y.
Your preferring x to y gives you a reason to choose x
over y.
Objective values
Consider the possibility that some things have a
degree of value/worth independently of our valuing
them. They have some degree of objective value—
value independent of our attitude towards them.
The interest of objective values
Something’s having objective value need not actually
motivate us to act in any particular way, but its having
that value would determine how we ought to behave.
We might be obliged to protect, promote, produce…
These oughts would be categorical, not hypothetical!
Objective values (if they exist) generate reasons for
action, reasons independent of our motivational states.
That is, objective values confer objective reasons for
The interest of objective values
Philosophers are interested in objective values in part
because they seem relevant to the question: Do we
have reason to be moral?
*How might objective values be relevant to this longstanding question? Illustration?
Are there objective values?
What might be some plausible candidates for things
possessing objective worth/value?
Do you have any worries about the idea that some
things possess this kind of worth/value?
Doing without objective values
Most of the authors we read do not commit themselves
to the existence of objective values. Two examples:
 Rachels wants to say that we have reason to act
morally, but that reason depends on our human
nature and not on objective values.
 Sartre denies that there are any objective values or
any human nature, but he still finds a place for
values, reasons, and even meanings.
What’s wrong with objective values?
Philosophers have asked what in the world objective
values could be and how we could come to know
truths about them.
Some insist that there are no satisfying answers to
these questions. Consequently, we have reason to be
skeptical of objective values.
One highly influential discussion along these lines is
due to the British philosopher J. L. Mackie. I will
offer an interpretation of his worries about
objective values and reasons.
Mackie’s argument from queerness
Mackie presupposes a naturalistic worldview and an
empiricist view of knowledge.
 Mackie is a naturalist with respect to metaphysics:
to determine what kinds of things exist, we look to
our best theories in the natural sciences.
 Mackie is an empiricist about knowledge: apart
from some conceptual truths, our knowledge is
derived from sensory experience (observation &
Metaphysical queerness
Look to our best theories in the natural sciences and
you will find plenty of claims about what
kinds/regularities in fact exist in our world.
You will not find any claims about goodness,
badness, or how things ought to be (independent of
our desires/aims/goals).
Our best scientific theories do not invoke anything
like values. They reveal truths about how the world
is, not about how it ought to be.
Metaphysical queerness
Don’t smoke (if you want to be healthy)!
Don’t cause unnecessary suffering!
The first is the sort of thing discovered by science.
The second is very different from the first and very
different in kind from anything scientists have
Do you share this worry about
metaphysical queerness?
Do you agree that there is something suspicious
about objective values—values “out there” as part
of the fabric of the universe independent of our
If so, is it because you endorse an austere, scientific
image of the world?
Epistemological queerness
According to the empiricist tradition, the following pretty well
exhaust our ways of gaining knowledge:
1. the a priori method of conceptual analysis
2. the a posteriori methods of observation and experimentation
But neither method is suited to reveal the presence of objective
values in the universe.
Knowledge of objective values would seem to require a third
way of knowing like
3. intuition
Note that intuition is not regarded as a valid source of
premises in the natural sciences.
Other ways of knowing?
Do you think the scientific image of the world is overly
narrow? Might there be other ways of discovering
truths about the world beyond our proven scientific
Our initial problem revisited
Acknowledging objective values has its costs: we are
committing ourselves to claims without having the
kind of supporting evidence that we require in the
At the same time there is a benefit: objective values
hold the promise of yielding objective reasons for
acting morally.
But maybe we gave up too quickly on the idea that
moral oughts can be grounded in subjective values.
Rachels’ strategy
It is part of our constitution, our human nature, that we
care about the welfare of others. Rachels writes: “…it
is easy to forget just how fundamental to human
psychological makeup the feeling of sympathy is.
Indeed, a man without any sympathy at all would
scarcely be recognizable as a man…”
But given that we care about the welfare of others,
we have reason to make the sacrifices demanded by
morality (insofar as the sacrifices benefit others).
How Rachels avoids mystery
For Rachels, moral reasons for action are no real
mystery. They are simply reasons generated by the
sort of means-ends reasoning we employ in
attempting to satisfy our desires. Compare:
 If you want to improve your health, then you’ve got
reason to stop smoking.
 If you care about the welfare of others, then you’ve
got reason not to cause unnecessary suffering.
These reasons for action depend on our valuations,
attitudes—not on objective values.
Morality as
rationalized benevolence
In our reading Rachels doesn’t offer a theory about
what morality is, but what he does say is in line with the
idea that morality is fundamentally about rational
pursuit of an end we care about: well-being.
If we reflect carefully, we will recognize that it would
be arbitrary to care only about the suffering of some,
not others. The thing we dislike—suffering—is in general
a bad thing.
We have reason to promote well-being generally
because we are rational, benevolent beings.
Virtues of Rachels’ approach?
Virtues of Rachels’ approach
depends on a plausible claim about human nature
depends on a plausible view of morality as
fundamentally about well-being/welfare
Worries about Rachels’ approach?
Worries about Rachels’ approach
sociopaths and others who don’t care enough
people with peculiar priorities
gives up on the plausible idea that moral rules are
categorical imperatives—imperatives that are
binding on us whatever our desires happen to be—
in favor of the idea that moral rules are
hypothetical imperatives, imperatives that are
binding on us only insofar as we have certain