Discover more from Earthly Idealism
Who Needs Effective Egoism?
Examining Richard Carrier’s case for a secular morality
Carrier is a philosopher and historian who is wickedly smart, relentlessly interesting, and one of the culture’s best critics of religion. In “Moral Facts Naturally Exist (and Science Could Find Them),” published in John Loftus’s collection The End of Christianity, Carrier makes the case for a fact-based, egoistic morality—and argues that religion is an awful basis for morality.
Thanks for reading Earthly Idealism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
There is much in Carrier’s article that I agree with. And where we disagree, the disagreements help illuminate important aspects of the moral perspective I’ve outlined in this newsletter, particularly in “What is Effective Egoism?”
Do we need religion to have reasons to be moral? “[Q]uite the opposite,” says Carrier, since “only empirically confirmable facts can constitute a valid reason to be moral, and yet religions do not plausibly provide any.”
To make his case, Carrier begins by dispensing with the infamous “is/ought gap,” which claims that it’s impossible to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Total nonsense, he says. The only way to arrive at an “ought” is through an “is,” and we do it all the time.
For example, “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity.” This entails an imperative statement (”you ought to change your car’s oil with sufficient regularity”), which is factually true independent of human opinion or belief.
Every true hypothetical imperative (”you must do x if you want to achieve y”) bridges the “is/ought gap.” Reasoning from “is” to “ought” isn’t some gnarly problem philosophers have to solve—it’s something all of us do every day.
This doesn’t yet get us to moral imperatives, however. Moral imperatives don’t just identify how we can get what we want, thinks Carrier, but how we get what we most want—what we want “above all else.” Nevertheless, what we’ve seen so far is that “if science cannot discover moral facts, it cannot be because ‘you cannot get an “ought” from an “is.”’”
Religion pretends that it can provide something even better than hypothetical imperatives as the foundation for morality: unconditional or categorical imperatives—”you must…period.” But it can’t. Categorical imperatives are categorically incoherent. All of religion’s moral claims ultimately come down to some variant of “you must do what God says if you want to avoid going to hell.” But religion’s hypothetical imperatives lack empirical grounding. There’s no evidence of a God, no evidence of an afterlife, and no evidence that following religion’s rules will lead us to heaven rather than hell.
So we can’t rely on religion to provide an empirical foundation for morality. But we have every reason to think science can. Really all you need is for science to discover what we most desire. If scientists demonstrate what we most desire, and what kinds of actions will help us get what we most desire, then the result will be a fact-based morality.
I have defined true moral facts as imperative propositions that we ought in actual fact obey over all other imperatives, and so far as anyone has been able to prove, this means a moral imperative is a hypothetical imperative that supersedes all other imperatives. In other words, “true moral facts” are the things we ought to do above all else, such that if we confront two conflicting imperatives, we ought to fulfill the moral imperative instead of any other.
So what do we desire above all else? Carrier doesn’t take a position on this (at least not in this article). He even allows that different people may have different top desires, though he raises various grounds for doubting this. But whether there is one morality true for all human beings, or different moralities for different human beings based on what each individual desires most of all, it remains true that in identifying what we desire most of all and how to get it, science can provide an empirically demonstrated, fact-based ethics.
Assessing Carrier’s Argument
There is much to like here. Above all, Carrier is right that morality must be justified on empirical grounds, that there is no is/ought chasm preventing us from justifying morality on empirical grounds, and that any coherent morality will consist of hypothetical imperatives.
But, as we’ll see, there are fundamental differences between how Carrier tries to ground morality and Effective Egoism’s approach—differences rooted ultimately in very different views of human nature.
Why there is no “is/ought gap”
Carrier ruthlessly exposes the hopelessness of all approaches to morality that claim to base morality on categorical imperatives. All moral theories, he shows, appeal to hypothetical imperatives. They have to because, as I’ve also pointed out, there is no other way to answer the question: “Why be moral?”
Carrier argues that even Kant, the arch-champion of the categorical imperative, had to resort to hypothetical imperatives on the sly.
Kant argued that the only reason to obey his categorical imperative is that doing so will bring us a greater sense of self-worth, that in fact we should “hold ourselves bound by certain laws in order to find solely in our own person a worth” that compensates for every loss incurred by obeying, for “there is no one, not even the most hardened scoundrel who does not wish that he too might be a man of like spirit,” yet only through the moral life can he gain that “greater inner worth of his own person.” Thus Kant claimed a strong sense of self-worth is not possible for the immoral person, but a matter of course for the moral one, and yet everyone wants such a thing (more even than anything else), therefore everyone has sufficient reasons to be moral. He never noticed that he had thereby reduced his entire system of categorical imperatives to a single hypothetical imperative.”
Moral philosophers cannot escape hypothetical imperatives because hypothetical imperatives specify what you have at stake in following morality’s advice—and those stakes are precisely what give morality its authority. If a moral theory cannot answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” you have no compelling reason to follow it.
The religious critique of secular morality often insists that hypothetical imperatives render morality subjective. Kant’s morality, for instance, stands or falls on whether people happen to want self-worth (and then whether following Kant’s duties produces self-worth). If someone says, “I don’t want self-worth,” they seem to be released from morality’s authority.
But this objection misses Carrier’s point. It’s true that any particular moral theory positing a universally shared ultimate end can be refuted by showing that (some) people don’t desire its ultimate end, or desire it above all else. But there will always be something that a person desires more than anything else. Morality may not be universal—but that doesn’t make morality subjective in the sense of being a matter of taste or opinion. There will always be some fact about what a person desires most of all and there will always be some fact about how that ultimate end can be achieved. And so it’s inescapably true that everyone falls under the authority of some fact-based morality.
Effective Egoism is going to end up agreeing with Carrier that hypothetical imperatives do not render morality subjective, though for substantively different reasons. To bring those reasons to the surface, we need to look more closely at how Carrier thinks we justify ultimate ends.
How we justify ultimate ends
According to Carrier, any fact-based morality will be a morality of hypothetical imperatives because hypothetical imperatives are the only “oughts” that can be rationally justified. And, notes Carrier, this is something Hume, the thinker credited with demonstrating an “is/ought gap,” agreed with. “Hume declared that imperatives not only do, but can only derive from the facts of nature, and are therefore proper objects of scientific inquiry.”
Hume’s claim was not that it was impossible to bridge some is/ought chasm. His claim, observes Carrier, was “that ‘vulgar systems of morality’ have failed to establish that connection, not that no system ever could; to the contrary, in the very next section [of A Treatise of Human Nature] he argues he can—so, even if you believe [Hume’s] specific moral theory is incorrect, it’s still wrong to claim he declared a reduction of values to facts to be impossible.”
It appears evident that the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties.
So for Hume, reason can establish that we ought to wear jogging shoes if our goal is to go for a run. And reason can establish that we ought to go for a run if our goal is to stay healthy. And reason can establish that we ought to stay healthy if we want to avoid the pain of sickness. But avoiding pain? That’s neither rational nor irrational. All we can say is: we happen to desire it.
In Hume’s account, our ultimate end, whether it is avoiding pain or some other plausible candidate, is going to be some desire that can be scrutinized by reason only in a trivial way. Namely, reason can ask whether our desire is “founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist.” So, if your ultimate desire is to make God smile, reason can ask whether God actually exists. But beyond that? Reason has nothing to say. Hence Hume’s famous lines:
It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.
Carrier agrees with Hume. As he puts it in his book Sense and Goodness Without God, “reason is the slave of emotion. . . . [It] informs, but does not direct. Reason is directed, it is employed, for purposes not its own, because reason alone cannot have a purpose” (196-97).
For Carrier, reason’s role in establishing a fact-based morality is not to justify our ultimate end—its role is merely to identify our ultimate end, which is the product of innate desire.
This marks the biggest difference between Carrier’s moral theory and Effective Egoism. For an Effective Egoist, reason is not a slave of emotion. It is a biological faculty with a biological function: to guide our actions. We can and must reason about our ends, including our ultimate end.
Where desires come from
Carrier’s account takes desires as the starting point for moral reasoning—they are what determine what we want most of all. But where do these desires come from? They are, he says, innate. Our innate desires create motives, motives create goals, and reason’s job is to act as a check to ensure we don’t form dumb or conflicting goals, and then to tell us how to achieve our goals. Morality, on this approach, is a tool for telling us how to achieve our most important goals.
To fully answer Carrier would require delving deeply into our respective views of reason, emotion, and free will. Carrier gives his fullest account in Sense and Goodness and I give my take in my forthcoming book Effective Egoism. I’ll be happy to send Carrier a copy if he wants to continue the conversation.
For now I’ll just say that if Carrier’s starting point for thought and action is desire, my starting point is volitional commitment: we can choose to commit ourselves to understanding reality or not—to think or not. If we choose to think, our rational judgment will determine our values, and our values will shape our emotions. If we don’t choose to think, if we fail to exercise our rational judgment, our values will typically be the result of passive conformity: we’ll value what the people around us happen to value. Either way, our emotional desires are not innate but the product of how we choose to use our minds.
On this account, one of the most important factors shaping what we desire most is morality. Morality doesn’t identify what we do value most of all; it tells us what we should value most of all. Morality is not simply a guide to achieving our ultimate ends—we need morality to tell us what ultimate end to pursue.
But can it do that? And if so, how?
Where our ultimate end comes from
According to Carrier, ethics is empirical in two senses. Scientists must discover what we actually desire most of all, and how we can obtain what we desire most of all:
[T]here is no known way to validly derive such a conclusion (about what in actual fact we ought to do) than by some premise establishing that moral system as a hypothetical imperative, combined with all the premises of motives and consequences required thereby, which are all empirical facts discoverable by science. What we really want most, and what will really obtain that, are matters of fact that cannot truly be answered from the armchair. Empirical methods must be deployed to ascertain and verify them.
I agree that ethics is empirical and scientific. But the first question a science of ethics must examine is not, “What do we most want?” The phenomenon to investigate is the phenomenon of valuing.
Carrier is not a fan of Ayn Rand, but this was one of Rand’s most important innovations. She recognized that before we can answer the question of which values human beings ought to pursue, we need to ask a wider question about what values are.
I won’t recapitulate Effective Egoism’s entire answer to these questions. You can read Rand’s account or my essay “What is Effective Egoism?” for a fuller case. (For in-depth scholarly treatments, see Darryl Wright’s “Reasoning About Ends” and Tara Smith’s Viable Values.) What I want to do is briefly sketch out Effective Egoism’s account, stressing the empirical nature of the approach, and then connect it back to Carrier’s account.
At the most general level, values are “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” They are objects of goal-directed action. To see something as a value, we need to see an agent pursuing goals, and we need to see that the agent has something at stake in achieving its goals. Absent goal-directed action with stakes, there are no values.
Where do we see goal-directed action with stakes? Only with living organisms. Life is activity: the activity of pursuing goals that make possible the continued existence of the organism. Unlike other entities, living organisms pursue goals with stakes because living organisms face the ultimate stakes: life or death. Values, then, are goals living entities pursue to achieve an ultimate goal: their continued existence as goal-pursuing entities.
None of this should be particularly controversial. It’s consistent with the work of an increasing number of scientists and philosophers of science, such as D.M. Walsh, Kevin J. Mitchell, and Terrence Deacon. For example, Jeremy Sherman writes in Neither Ghost Nor Machine, his popularization of Deacon’s work:
Selves [i.e., living organisms] and aims [i.e., “traits and behaviors that are functional, valuable, significant, or useful, including all biologically adaptive traits”] are inextricably linked: Only selves aim. To be a self is to aim; to aim is to work toward some potential ends, and the most fundamental such state is to remain a self. Nonselves have no aims of their own. We selves build machines to serve our aims, not their aims. Nothing matters except to selves, given their aims. (5)
Self-regeneration is a circular, looped, or iterative capacity unique to selves. Being alive, selves work to stay alive, doing work that we are able to do because we are alive. Our means and ends are circular. We engage in means-to-ends behavior most fundamentally toward the end of maintaining our self-regenerative means. (15)
Valuing, then, is something all living organisms do. They pursue ends necessary for the preservation of their ultimate end, which is their life. If you aren’t talking about ends that are life-preserving and life-enhancing, you aren’t talking about values. “Apart from the beneficial or harmful effects of action back on the agent,” writes philosopher Harry Binswanger, “there is no way to distinguish goals, values, good, and so on from anything else” (Foundations of a Free Society, 265). That is the empirical starting point of ethics.
But human beings have free will, and this gives us the power to pursue ends at odds with self-preservation. What should we make of that?
Effective Egoism does not say that because other living organisms pursue the goal of self-preservation, human beings should pursue the goal of self-preservation. That’s bad reasoning. What Effective Egoism does say is: you can pursue ends other than self-preservation, but then you are no longer pursuing values. Your life simply is your ultimate value and values simply are ends that promote your life—but you can choose to pursue them or not.
The choice to live
Carrier, as we’ve seen, recognizes that morality deals only with hypothetical imperatives: you must, if. In his account, the “if” stands for a desire. “You must get a job, if you desire to eat.” But the foundational hypothetical imperative for Effective Egoism is not a desire but a choice.
As a human being, you face a choice—to pursue values or not—which means: to live or not. If you choose to live, then you need to pursue the values that will sustain your life. These values aren’t obvious: they stretch far beyond food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. To live, human beings must meet complex mental, emotional, and material needs. The purpose of morality is to identify a code of genuinely pro-life values and the virtues that will achieve them.
A person who does not choose to live doesn’t need values or morality. He does not want what morality has to offer, and he’ll reap the consequences: suffering, pain, and ultimately death. To be sure, he’ll typically go on acting, and will still have motives and ends. But these will consist, not of achieving positive values, but of escaping negatives. As philosopher Greg Salmieri observes, such people:
experience the negative sensations (such as thirst and hunger) that are signals of unmet physical needs and the negative emotions (such as chronic fear and self-doubt) that signal unmet psychological needs. Needs of both sorts form part of the context for the process of valuing. But unlike the valuer, who sees satisfying these needs as a part of and means to achieving his own life and happiness, [those who don’t choose to live] merely “seek escape from pain.” (”The Act of Valuing (and the Objectivity of Values),” 64)
Most people, of course, do want to live, but they are inconsistent in pursuing pro-life values. They pursue life-promoting ends sometimes, and at other times subvert their life in the name of other goals, such as short-term pleasure, or serving God, or sacrificing for the group.
What Effective Egoism says is that none of those other goals can constitute a legitimate ultimate end because a person cannot have a genuine stake in any of them. Consequently there’s no upside in pursuing anything other than one’s own life and the happiness it makes possible. They aren’t pursuing genuine values, but subverting the only genuine values there are.
The choice to live…or the desire to live?
Carrier might object at this point, “You’ve merely argued that if people desire to live most of all, then they should do what life requires. That’s my theory!” In fact, he might argue that Effective Egoism’s position is weaker than his. According to Effective Egoism, morality only has a claim on those who choose to live, while for Carrier, everyone is subject to some morality.
I have explained elsewhere why not choosing to live doesn’t exempt people from morality in any problematic sense. But there is something plausible about the deeper question concerning whether the choice to live is really a choice or whether it’s the product of desire.
After all, it’s true that most people desire to live, or at any rate seem to. It would be weird to make a such a big deal about choice if all it amounted to was the choice to do what you want or to not do what you want. The choice between cake or death hardly seems like a choice at all. But Effective Egoism’s position is that the desire to live is not given to us automatically. It has to be created and nurtured through our choices.
The fundamental choice we face as human beings is the choice to commit ourselves to awareness of reality or not. That commitment is not the product of an emotional desire—it is a primary choice that can’t be reduced to some more basic element. It is motivated, but only in the sense that it has an aim: awareness. The value of awareness is omnipresent, but that has no impact on whether we do in fact seek awareness. Seeking awareness takes effort and whether or not we exert that effort is a matter of choice.
What Effective Egoism argues is that it is through making this volitional commitment to awareness of reality over time that we build a network of values that explains the desire to live. Here is how Salmieri explains the point:
The choice to think is the basic act of valuing. In engaging one’s mind, one embraces the world and brings oneself into existence as a thinking being. Reason is the faculty by which human beings discover our needs, circumstances, and abilities (including the fact that reason is our means of survival and that our lives depend on our own actions) and by which we project values. A person who consistently chooses to think will form specific, life-sustaining values and integrate them into a self-sustaining life that he loves. . . .
Since the choice to think is the basic act of valuing, a person who chooses to evade the effort of thinking (to whatever extent he evades the effort) will not value anything—not even his own life. (”The Act of Valuing (and the Objectivity of Values),” 64)
In other words, the choice to live is a real choice, but it’s rarely one that we confront in stark life-or-death terms. We confront it day in and day out in the continual need to decide what level of awareness we’ll bring to our activities. The more we choose to engage with reality, the more we’ll form strong values that fuel us with a desire to live in reality. The more we choose to turn away from reality, to drift through life, to blind ourselves to our problems and faults, the more that life itself will cease to have value for us. We may fear death, but we will not love life and will come to resent its demands. Choice, not desire, is the fundamental causal factor.
On the surface, Carrier’s conception of morality has a lot of overlap with Effective Egoism’s. Both accounts hold that an empirically grounded, fact-based morality is possible and that it consists of hypothetical imperatives. Both accounts, too, recognize that any defensible conception of morality must be egoistic: “Not only is [my moral theory] fundamentally egoistic, I have argued that no successful metaethics could be anything but” (Sense and Goodness, 347).
But these similarities mask fundamental disagreements about human nature that lead to important differences in both the justification of morality, and ultimately in the content of morality.
Above all, Carrier views innate desires as the fount of human action, and the starting point of moral justification. The fact that we necessarily desire some things most of all, and that achieving these things has certain factual requirements, is sufficient, in Carrier’s view, to ground morality in empirical data.
For Effective Egoism, we are volitional beings whose desires are shaped in fundamental ways by our choices. It is precisely the existence of free will that makes morality necessary. Other organisms pursue life-sustaining values automatically. We don’t. If we choose to live, we need a conceptual guide to implement our choice. We need a code of values and virtues that describes in abstract terms the human way of life, which we can then use to select the particular values and make the particular decisions that will add up to our own, individual flourishing.
As important as these differences are, they illustrate that the question is not whether there can be a rational secular morality, but what that moral code consists of and why it’s right. For anyone who values reason, religion is off the table as a source of justification. A morality of reason must depend solely on earthly facts.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
Thanks for reading Earthly Idealism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.