© 2011 by Richard J. Eisner


Since establishing in Ethics a quarter century ago that intrinsic value is impossible, I thought I had said all I would have to say about morality. I now find I have more to say.

            A frequent controversy in ethics is subjectivity versus objectivity. In his course The Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience, Professor Robert H. Kane writes, “The doctrine at issue with these sunderings is therefore subjectivism: the view that judgments of value express personal feelings, desires, or attitudes and are not objectively true or false”—that there is an “unbridgeable gap between fact and value.” This statement needs to be refined. Whether value (here I use “value” to include “disvalue”) actually exists (that is, whether a particular thing [or anything] really is of worth) is an objective matter, independent of our opinion about it. Another name for that sort of value which, objectively, exists or does not exist is intrinsic value. In this sense, to contend that values are subjective is to deny the possibility, or at least the existence, of intrinsic worth. A related but separate idea is our ability to know the truth of the matter. (But, that we cannot know the fact of a matter does not imply that there is no fact of the matter.) It seems to me that, when they proclaim that values are subjective, most people mean, not that intrinsic value is impossible or nonexistent, but, rather, that it’s impossible to know or to prove what, if anything, is of intrinsic worth.

            Howbeit, when I say, “Values are subjective,” I mean this. To start with, there can be no objective (intrinsic) worth (which I know through deduction). Hence, a person’s opinion that certain things are valuable is, not subjective, but simply wrong. But one’s hierarchy of values is subjective (since nothing—no thing—is actually valuable, there is no objective basis for the ordering, and so it’s an expression of mere personal preference, no such preference ultimately more valid than another). In this regard, a ranking of values is a statement, not of what is valuable, but of what we value. (Ergo, incidentally, I do not support the dichotomy of fact and value, but just the opposite: I make value [specifically, the absence of (intrinsic) value] a fact.)

             Similarly, human conduct, as ethically relevant, must be divided between its effect, on one hand, and its intention, on the other (though, practically, intention without effect is sterile, and effect is the best evidence of intention). An action’s effect includes that on people’s experience, especially the experience’s distilled, net, overall (absolute) quantum of happiness or unhappiness (whose amount, though, may sometimes be zero). Outwardly, an act is objectively good or bad exactly as it affects intrinsic good or evil. And, since I disbelieve in intrinsic good or ill, I believe that no action’s effect can be objectively good or bad.

            One form of an actor’s intention is the moral obligation, a person’s feeling that he should attempt to do a certain act or pursue a certain course of action. This state of mind is a gestalt, a distinct psychological entity not reducible to other elements; and whether a man is experiencing it (while perhaps impossible for the subject to prove or for another to know) is a matter of fact. Moral obligation, in this sense, is objective.

             A moral duty’s particular content, however, is essentially subjective, and ultimately arbitrary: no rule of conduct (let alone the conduct itself), is true or false; and a person could feel almost any duty. For instance, a man could feel morally compelled to seek to cause pain and destroy pleasure, on the basis that his final rule of action is God’s will, and God wishes him to so act. (God’s commandment thus may even strike him as bizarre; but, after all, he thinks, God works in mysterious ways.)

             Indeed, the variety of actual specific moral rules appears virtually limitless. A person might, for example, adopt one or more of the Ten Commandments, announcing as his main precept, “Thou shalt not kill.” Then there’s the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Another well-known principle is utilitarianism, to do that which effects the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

             Although a given moral obligation’s particular content is subjective, and varies from person to person; most moral doctrines and judgments about people’s actions and moral character seem to share a common feature, which I’ll discuss, not as a matter of what necessarily is, but instead merely as a description of what often happens to be; less philosophically than anthropologically. Though a person could feel a moral obligation to benefit himself (as in, “I owe it to myself”); the typical moral duty has as its explicit object the enhancement of the welfare of (or prevention or reduction of harm to) others, the group, the whole; and we tend to judge acts good which enhance the well-being of others or of the group. The intention’s explicitness means that the advantage to the whole is the act’s purpose, not a mere side effect. (That we regard a person’s duty to others differently from his duty to himself is shown by our contrasting responses to his hurting others [anger] versus hurting himself [sympathy]. Furthermore, if we imagine a world containing just one person, who believes that he’s alone and that no other sentient beings will ever exist, regardless of what he does or doesn’t do, it would be difficult to picture a situation in which we would think of that sole person as morally good or bad.)

             If an action that enhances the commonweal is selfishly motivated, we still applaud it, to encourage beneficial acts. To the extent that effectively good conduct is altruistic, our celebration of it is augmented so as to recognize the moral element, by, for instance, calling someone a hero or a saint. If a person’s action helps himself but hurts others, yet the advantage to himself outweighs the harm to others; then (at least if he regretted such harm, or did not intend it, and sought to minimize it) we may choose not to condemn the act, for it’s warranted by the balance of good and bad (indeed, since the actor is part of the whole, and his own well-being is part of the group’s, such an act might even be thought of as benefitting the group). This latter observation touches on the notion of permissibility or justification, by which a selfish act might be spared from being classified as immoral.

             The above configuration regarding the good has an approximate mirror image on the negative side. If an action hurts the group, we condemn it. And the degree and character of the condemnation vary with the actor’s intent. If the intent was good, we may denominate the act or the actor incompetent. If a person intentionally harms others (at least absent a greater benefit to himself or the whole, or other special circumstances), we reserve our most severe condemnation and label him evil, a villain. If a man’s (net) bad effect on the aggregate was merely an unintended byproduct of an attempt to assist himself, but he knew his act would likely negatively affect the group, we call the actor selfish—unless the predictable harm to others is disproportionate to (much greater than) the selfish good likely to be realized, or the harm was unnecessary or greater than necessary, in which cases we may still put the act in the evil category, or, depending on the harm’s magnitude, perhaps in an in-between category of sorts, callous.

             But a question. Is there a true diametrical equivalent of the moral obligation: an evil urge? The most likely candidate is meanness, the wish to harm others (but not according to perceived warrant, as in retribution). Technically, the two states are not correlative opposites, in that the sense of moral duty has no specific content or object (you could feel a moral compulsion even if you believed no other conscious beings existed or would ever exist), whereas meanness has a content (malice) and an object (other sentient creatures). Furthermore, meanness is a negative emotion, while moral duty is not an emotion at all, but rather a mental state (and you could feel morally constrained to hurt someone). The opposite of meanness is unselfish love, which, though similar to, is different from, moral obligation. Thus, theoretically, there is no immoral or evil intention, per se. Practically, though, we call evil such dispositions as meanness, sadism, or even extreme selfishness (radical disregard of the good of others).

            It will help to consider the general origin of ethical obligation. An individual instinctively seeks to foster what he likes and suppress what he dislikes. He does this by expressing positive or negative feelings toward those who so behave, which feelings can be communicated between verbally capable beings by praise or censure. An efficient means thereof is a list of rules. Moral codes are the collection of such rules, supplementing our legal codes, aimed at inducing men to act in conformance with society’s wishes; which moral rules we internalize, with endless individual variation, as moral obligations. In other words, moral (or good) conduct is that which the group has decided to encourage, and moral (or good) people are those who seek to follow the moral rules or to further the group’s interests; and conversely. (In brief, we call good that which we like, and bad that which we dislike.) Groups which happen to decide that their survival is among their interests are of course more likely to survive. . . . Men share a reservoir of common desires. Our ethical precepts are perhaps terrestrially objective, so to say, to the (limited) extent that they’re grounded in these mutual needs, but are ultimately subjective in that human nature, in great part, is metaphysically arbitrary.

            Having set forth this overview of morality, I shall now deal with several supplemental points. Some aver that altruism is impossible, since any action is finally selfish, in that the actor performs it because it makes him feel good, or at least satisfies some drive or need in him. This view is wrong. Concerning the first part of the assertion, that a man does good simply because it makes him feel good, a similar statement is sometimes made about people’s own selfish motivations for themselves. If, for example, a person declares (as I do) that his goal in life is to maximize his body of creative work, others may assume that he fundamentally seeks his own happiness, and that he wishes to maximize his creative work just as a means to happiness. But the two values are distinct. If presented with a choice (perhaps the proverbial granting of one wish) either to be happy but unproductive, or, alternatively, productive but unhappy, you could very well (I would) choose the latter. Thus one could select different values over that of happiness. (The confounding of happiness and other goals has perhaps been reinforced by the rightfully famous and often recited words of the United States Declaration of Independence: “ . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . . ” It would be more accurate, if less poetic, to say “the pursuit of their interests . . . ”) In the same way, a person could perceive a mutually exclusive choice between enhancement of his own well-being, on one hand, and enhancement of the group’s well-being, on the other hand, and choose the latter. To elaborate on this last point, people act from a great variety of motivations, both positive and negative. We not infrequently hear of people committing antisocial acts that seem out of character for them, and even against their self-interest. For example, a famous actress was recently convicted of shoplifting, which seemed very strange, because she could easily afford to buy the things she stole, and her theft jeopardized her good reputation and lucrative acting career. But if the urge to do an irrational, self-destructive antisocial act can somehow get into a person’s head; certainly, the same phenomenon could happen on the positive side: an urge to help others, regardless of his own welfare, could likewise get into a person’s head. Such an urge might be a moral obligation (a gestalt). Which probably often occurs. Surely it’s possible.

             The second half of the contention, to the effect that any action is selfish because, even if not done explicitly to enhance the actor’s happiness, it’s at minimum done to satisfy some impulse or need of the actor’s, is partly true and partly false. It’s false because of a similar confusion: namely, between a self-urge, an impulse centered in or arising from the self, and a selfish urge, an intention to enhance one’s own well-being. Even if we think of conduct as internally impelled or motivated, there’s a distinction between mere motivation (exemplified by your decision how to spend your vacation) and, contrariwise, moral obligation, a discrete subcategory of motivation (illustrated perhaps by your determination that, regrettably, you must forgo your vacation to be available to comfort a sick friend). Though the self may be the inclination’s genesis, surely also significant is the inclination’s content. Even if we accept that a person acts to satisfy his drives, or, still more simplistically, to be happy; surely it makes a difference in this respect whether a man’s motivation or happiness lies, say, in helping others or in hurting them.

             On a slightly different note, even if our actions are caused by our motivations or intentions, we still do not have free will. For, to have free will would require that we cause our intention, and that we in turn cause our intention to have that intention, and so on ad infinitum, which is impossible (our first intention is given to us, and that causes all of our subsequent intentions, and so all of our actions). And if we lack free will, we’re not morally responsible for what we do (“ought implies can”). Here, as on many issues, I think we must allow ourselves to be a bit schizophrenic, and dichotomize our view between the theoretical and the practical. I believe that, strictly, there is no free will, and thus we’re not responsible. In practice, however, we seem to have volition. It is in this everyday realm that we ascribe moral responsibility to men’s actions; perhaps, as with the notion of the self-arising impulse, we proceed by thinking that, whatever the impulse’s source, we deal with its content. An oft-argued implication of the no-free-will thesis is that, if a man is not responsible for his actions, it’s wrong to punish him for them. But the principle that humans are not morally responsible for their actions would apply also to our act of meting out punishment and so absolve us for that as well. Or, if we are morally responsible for punishing wrongdoers, then so, too, are the wrongdoers for their actions. In other words, the argument against punishing men for their actions is contradictory, in that it assumes free will as to the act of punishment, but a lack of free will as to the acts punished. So this argument is no warrant against punishment. More immediately, in this practical world in which we appear to have a degree of control over our actions, we seem to shape our behavior, to an extent, by predicted consequences, including sanction. Hence practicality justifies (nay, necessitates) the imposition of punishment, for conduct that harms the public.

             From here on, I’ll place greater emphasis on my own personal moral philosophy.

             As I explained in Ethics, I would feel a true particular moral obligation (a strict duty to perform a certain act or pursue a certain course of action) if and only if I believed that my act would increase the amount of intrinsic good (and/or decrease the intrinsic bad) in existence; and therefore (since I disbelieve in the possibility of intrinsic good or evil) I feel no strict moral obligation, but only mere motivation, and quasi moral duty; which transformation, moreover, brings a shift in my concern from the group’s welfare to my own.

            But these questions arise: Having renounced moral obligation, what replaces it? What guideline(s), strict or otherwise, do I use to direct my own action? And what principle(s) do I propose for others, and for society? Regarding my own life; first, again, my chief motivation is to maximize my body of creative work (my writing), and to have it live on as literature valued by the world. It’s (deserved) fame to which I aspire. If I believed that my writing would perish with me, I wouldn’t bother to do it. But I hold and act upon other “values” as well as creative fruitfulness, including pleasure. Of two alternative, equally productive lives, I would, of course, elect that containing greater happiness. In fact, for a large enough gain in pleasure, I would even sacrifice a measure of productivity, my choice between pleasure and productivity varying with my wavering mood, desire for pleasure, and satisfaction with my existing body of work. More broadly, my behavior seems governed by no certain principle(s); rather, I react to continually and unpredictably altering circumstances according to a swirling, ever-changing mix of my fluctuating needs, wishes, tastes, abilities, energies, values, self-image, ideals, my sense of duty, and sundry other elements, many of them subconscious, instinctually and spontaneously. My overriding purpose to maximize my body of work influences the broad outlines of my life, but not necessarily my hour-to-hour, day-to-day conduct; like a compass heading or star, determining the general course or direction in which I strive to advance, but not my particular, often circuitous, meandering route.

            Looking outward, many philosophers have shared my simple, commonsense view that, if intrinsic value exists, actually or potentially, our sole obligation should be to maximize the net existent amount of it. Also, intrinsic value, were it to exist, would consist in a single quintessential substance or quality common to all that’s intrinsically valuable (since, in order to put two intrinsically valuable entities on the figurative scale to weigh them to determine which is more desirable, to compare them, there must be some unit, some stuff, common to both, in terms of which the scale registers). The belief in intrinsic value therefore compels the philosopher to select one element as the final desideratum, and to reject all other qualities as ultimately insignificant or to somehow define them in terms of that which has been identified as intrinsically good. John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, takes the latter approach, defining anything he believes merits our pursuit, like knowledge, in terms of pleasure. Aristotle, in large part, adopts the former strategy, denying the worth of anything besides intellectual and artistic flourishing, including pleasure itself.

             Letting go the belief in intrinsic worth allows us to view life in a comprehensive, realistic way. Men act, not by one value, but by many fundamentally incommensurable values. Likewise, no single precept appears to satisfactorily resolve every conceivable moral dilemma (nor could it even possibly do so, since, as mentioned, no precept is objectively true or false, no act intrinsically better than another); and in the end we conduct ourselves, not formulaically, but ad hoc, relying intuitively, as the situation at hand may seem to warrant, on a variety of ethical doctrines, most of which possess some merit and use. For example, the Golden Rule works well in many individual interactions, whereas utilitarianism better suits decisions affecting the community.

             As to my social philosophy, I have some concern for the welfare of mankind, though that concern is partly selfish, since my fame depends on the existence and perpetuation of an audience. And yet, if I become a famous writer, I’ll have benefitted the world as much as I could have. Hence, my own interest coincides with society’s. Beyond this, my (quasi) moral urge mode would be to work to effect my ideal picture of the world. But another prefatory note on intrinsic value. If the value you select as intrinsic is one to which not everyone has access, like Aristotle’s choice of intellectual or artistic flourishing, then your philosophy denies many people participation in your conceived good life. The more open view of the good enables the democratic inclusion of all persons, by validating (in the sense that they’re no less valid) the endless variety of interests which men find meaningful. My world model incorporates a variant of utilitarianism (the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). While I disbelieve that happiness is intrinsically desirable; yet, since it’s the sole element appreciated by all sentient beings in all circumstances, it is, so to speak, quasi-intrinsically desirable. More important, I like utilitarianism’s explicit care for men’s welfare; and in the doctrine’s formula we may read “happiness” as a broader concept, such as well-being or quality of life. (Preliminarily, though, a query about the utility doctrine’s meaning. Does “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” mean the same as “the greatest happiness”? For instance, would utilitarianism prefer three people, each with five units of happiness, over two persons, each with eight units of happiness, on the ground that in the former case there are a greater number of happy people [though less gross happiness]? In other words, what’s the role of number of men in utilitarianism? For present purposes I’ll use the simpler formulation: “the greatest [human] happiness.”) Concomitant with my shift of attention from the group’s welfare to my own, my social view has gone from the betterment of the universe, including potential but nonexistent beings, to the betterment of society, of ourselves, existent beings (a fusion of utilitarianism and egoism). Accordingly, I prefer average utilitarianism (maximum per capita happiness) to total utilitarianism (maximum total happiness). I would prefer six very happy persons to six hundred moderately happy ones, even though that would entail less aggregate happiness. I prefer happier people (us) to greater happiness. But I would add these provisos. There should be enough people, and a sufficient diversity of them, to continue the species, as well as to enable civilization to thrive (we need scientists, physicians, teachers, artists, philosophers, and so forth). Conversely, human population and industrial development should be sufficiently limited in relation to the natural environment and other available resources so as to diminish neither per capita happiness nor long-term environmental health and sustainability. Unlike personal wealth, for example, which can be illimitably increased (an already very rich man may become thousands of times richer), a person’s happiness is limited. Thus the one and only way to reliably, steadily, and considerably augment gross human happiness is to increase human population. For that reason, and inasmuch as (by my foregoing criteria) we’re currently overpopulated; thus (assuming most people are happy), total utilitarianism and average utilitarianism actually clash . . . since continued population expansion raises total happiness but reduces average happiness, and vice versa. The change in my philosophy of human happiness (from total to average) brings a change in my model of human progress: from growth to equilibrium. Moreover; in general, with respect to a given population, the greater the inequality of wealth, the less the per capita happiness or well-being, by the above-implied law of diminishing returns (a certain sum of money means more to a poorer man than to a richer one: a billion dollars would not make a millionaire a thousand times—or any—happier; but even the relatively small amount of money needed to give a homeless man a home would significantly increase his quality of life . . . ). And so there should be relatively equal distribution of wealth among men. Lastly, I imagine a world in which each person will have the freedom and the resources, including time, to pursue the sort of life he wishes, and to fulfill his highest potential. In very broad terms, then, these are among the elements of my vision for man.

            One issue, however, particularly troubles me, one on which my own interest and society’s appear to conflict: videlicet, the biological improvement of our species’ intelligence, a trait we may soon be able to manipulate. It almost goes without saying that enhancing men’s intelligence is good for society as a whole (it would seem inconsistent to endeavor to fulfill our potential, but not to enlarge our potential). But such improvement is achieved by increasing the intelligence of men born in future, not of those already living, which creates an especial dilemma for a writer, like me, whose one mission in life is to create work of lasting value, as it were. Like beauty, artistic or literary greatness is in the eye of the beholder, and is relative. Great literature depends upon, exists precariously within, a fairly narrow range of audience intelligence. Below a certain intellectual level, people will not appreciate the work because they won’t understand it; above a certain level, also, they won’t appreciate it, but because they’ll apprehend it too easily; it will cease to be challenging and stimulating, and instead appear simple and obvious. As men over time become more and more sophisticated, my own comparative intellectual level will diminish; and, because literature is a product of its author’s mind, my work will likewise erode, and eventually become second-rate, and be superseded. Whether, if I had occasion to do so, I would attempt to facilitate man’s genetic intellectual improvement would perhaps depend on whether I was motivated at the time to sacrifice my own interests for humanity’s greater good. But that’s not what I’m doing here; rather, I’m just speaking honestly, which can only enhance this work.

             Earlier I noted the concept of permissibility, whereby an action we perform because we wish to do it (rather than because we feel we should do it) is excused, saved from being classified as bad. When a person stands to benefit exceptionally from a controversial social policy he argues for (like the tobacco company executive in urging reduction of cigarette taxes, or the nuclear power plant owner in pressing for increased use of nuclear energy), one must question his motivation and sincerity. Though an advocate’s having ulterior motives does not necessarily invalidate his argument; nonetheless, observing how some would specially gain from actions they urge (when their opponents would benefit from the opposite resolution only as members of the general public), can be instructive.

             A final question. Since most human actions that serve mankind are performed from selfish motives (such as Mozart’s composing his music, which furthered his own interests better than any other activity he might have pursued); to what extent if at all is moral good important to man’s welfare? My own answer is this. As suggested, human population, industrial development, and pollution continue to grow, and the already devastated natural environment continues to decline. Although this trend hurts nearly everyone; it still, at this point in history, benefits the wealthy (one reason being that the more people to whom they can sell their goods and services, the greater their profit), and so the rich use their power to perpetuate it. It seems to me that, in order to reverse the present course, save the Earth, and bring about a better world, the privileged few must begin to act morally . . . or the many must learn to act from enlightened self-interest.


© 2011 by Richard J. Eisner