The Analytic Problem with Personal Moral Relativism

I sat down to write a blog post about this, and realized that I had already done it.  Here’s the original: Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg. But I can give a more succinct account here, for easy reference.

Here’s the basic point: Anyone who claims that moral judgments of the form “X is wrong”  reduces to personal opinion, personal belief, personal view, etc. seems to be saying something incoherent. That is, the attempt to reduce moral judgments to the status of personal belief or opinions fails because it ends up being incoherent.

Why is this the case?

(1) Anyone who makes a claim like “A proposition of the form ‘X is wrong’ (e.g. ‘rape is wrong’) stated by P means only that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’,” is claiming that ‘P believes that X is wrong’ or ‘In P’s opinion, X is wrong’ gives the analysis or meaning of the expression “X is wrong.”

This analysis necessarily fails because “X is wrong” is supposed to be explained as “P believes that X is wrong” which contains the the proposition “X is wrong” embedded within it—and so this embedded portion of “P believes that X is wrong” still needs to be explained. If it is true that “X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong” then the “X is wrong” embedded inside “P believes that X is wrong” means “P believes that X is wrong,” which yields the analysis “P believes that P believes that X is wrong.”  And “P believes that P believes that X is wrong” itself still contains the embedded “X is wrong” and so becomes “P believes that P believes that P believes that X is wrong” … which still contains the embedded “X is wrong,” which is therefore never explained at any level.  All that is done is to set off an infinite regress which explains nothing at any point.

So attempting to analyze or give the meaning of “X is wrong” as someone’s belief or opinion or view that “X is wrong” is failed pseudo-analysis of moral propositions, being both infinite and failing at every point to give the meaning of “X is wrong.”

(2) Alternately one could attempt to analyze “X is wrong” stated by P as “P disapproves of X.” But now one needs to give the analysis or meaning of “P disapproves of X”—it should be clear that “P disapproves of X” cannot mean “P thinks that X is wrong” because this analysis would be both circular and generate same infinite regress problem above.

(3) One could hold that “X is wrong” stated by P means “P disapproves of X” where “P disapproves of X” is treated as a brute psychological fact without any rational content—it need not be analyzed because it has no rational content. But if the relativist makes this move, he is embracing emotivism, which entirely removes moral judgments from the sphere of reason altogether, which is not what the relativist meant originally when he said that moral judgments were personal judgments.  He did not, presumably, mean at first to deny that they are judgments.  He only wanted to claim that they were “personal” judgments.  But clearly one cannot coherently hold that “all moral judgments are really only personal judgments and are also not judgments at all.”

The UPSHOT: The “personal relativist” needs to give a coherent analysis of moral judgments of the from “X is wrong” that (a) does not set off an infinite non-explanatory regress, (b) is not circular, and (c) does not collapse his position into a different position entirely, viz. emotivism.

Here is philosopher Davis S. Oderberg saying essentially the same thing:

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular.

On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

Personal Moral Relativism Collapses into Emotivism, via David S. Oderberg

I recently made a post to Twitter to explain why the simplest kind of moral subjectivism necessarily collapses into emotivism or moral non-cognitivism.  The basic argument is that one cannot coherent reduce “P is wrong” to a mere opinion or belief that “P is wrong” because, opinions and beliefs are propositional attitudes towards a proposition, in this case, the proposition “P is wrong,” which, if it is proposition, must necessarily have a truth-value. If it does not have a truth value, it is senseless to claim that the analysis of such judgements is to say that someone has a view about what its truth value is.

This point is made very cogently by philosopher David S. Oderberg in his magisterial Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach, which I highly recommend to all my readers, as well as its companion volume Applied Ethics: A Nonconsequentialist Approach.

I here reproduce Oderberg’s analysis from Chapter 1 of his book, specially about the semantic objection to moral relativism—a case originally made by philosopher Peter Geach, whose work I also highly recommend to anyone interested:


Perhaps the most widespread form of relativism, again deriving from the philosophy of David Hume, is what I shall call personal relativism, more usually called subjectivism. The central claim of personal relativism is that the truth or falsity (truth value) of moral statements varies from person to person, since morality is merely a matter of opinion. Now there are various ways in which subjectivists have elaborated this basic thought, developing more or less sophisticated semantic theories linking moral judgements with statements of opinion. It is impossible to look at them all, but since the sorts of objection I will raise can be applied in modified form to different versions, let us take just one kind of subjectivist theory. It is one of the more simple varieties, and while many philosophers would say it was too simple, it also happens to be the sort of subjectivism that the vast majority of students of moral philosophy believe; and it is an approach that many will continue to believe even after they have finished studying philosophy!

According to this version of subjectivism, there is no objective truth to the statement, for instance, ‘Child abuse is wrong’: all that a person is entitled to claim is something equivalent to ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’ Instead of saying ‘I disapprove of child abuse’, Alan may say ‘Child abuse is wrong for me’, or ‘Child abuse is wrong from my subjective viewpoint’, but he is not then allowed to say ‘Child abuse is wrong, pure and simple’, since it might be right from Brian’s subjective viewpoint—he will say ‘Child abuse is right for me, though it is wrong for Alan, who personally disapproves of it.’ Generally speaking, moral judgements can never be considered apart from the question of who makes them. A moral judgement, ‘X is wrong’, made by a person P, can only be assessed for truth or falsity by relativizing it to P: the subjectivist says that ‘X is wrong’, uttered by P, is equivalent in meaning to ‘I disapprove of X’ uttered by P. If an observer were to report on P’s opinion, he would say, ‘X is wrong for P, or as far as P in concerned; in other words, P disapproves of it.’ But the observer can still say, ‘However, I personally approve of it, so “X is wrong” is not true for me.’

For the subjectivist, to claim that there is a fact about the morality of child abuse, which transcends mere personal opinion, is a philosophical mistake. Certainly, there are facts about what is wrong for Alan, right for Brian, and so on. These facts are genuine—they are reports of the opinions (or ‘sentiments’ to use Hume’s term) of individual moral judges—but since each judge makes law only for himself, he cannot impose his view of things on others. For the subjectivist, once the facts are in concerning the moral opinions of those engaged in a disagreement, there is no room for further argument. More accurately, there might be room for argument over other facts: Alan might claim ‘I approve of child abuse’ because he does not know the psychological damage it does to children. Had he known, he would have claimed ‘I disapprove of child abuse.’; and another person might change Alan’s mind by pointing out the relevant facts. But what the personal relativist holds is that as long as there is no dispute over the facts, two people can make opposing claims about the morality of a certain action or type of behavior with no room left for rational dispute. That have, as it were, reached bedrock.

As was said, the version of subjectivism just outlined is a simple one and all sorts of refinements can be added. Still, it is the view held by very many philosophy students, not to say quite a few philosophers (and certainly vast numbers of the general population), and should be assessed in that light. Further, as was also noted, the general kinds of observations that can be raised against it apply to the more sophisticated versions. We can only consider a few devastating objections here, but it should be noted that the validity of any one on its own is enough to refute subjectivism, whatever the strength of the others. Given the weight of all the objections, however, it is surprising that personal relativism is no widely held.

First there is the semantic problem: A proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ uttered by P (for some action or type of behavior X and some person P) is, according to the personal relativist, supposed to mean no more nor less than ‘P disapproves of doing X’: the latter statement is claimed to give the meaning or analysis of the former. But ‘P disapproves of doing X’ cannot, on this analysis, be equivalent to ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, since ‘Doing X is wrong’ is precisely what the relativist seeks to give the meaning of; in which case the analysis would be circular. On the other hand, the relativist might again analyze the embedded sentence ‘Doing X is wrong’ in ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’ as ‘P believes that doing X is wrong’, and so on, for every embedded occurrence of ‘Doing X is wrong’, thus ending up with an infinite regress: ‘P believes that P believes that P believes . . . that doing X is wrong.’ This, of course, would he no analysis at all, being both infinite and leaving a proposition of the form ‘Doing X is wrong’ unanalyzed at every stage.

Such an obvious difficulty might make one wonder that any relativist should support such a way of trying to analyze ‘Doing X is wrong’; but if he is committed to the idea that morality is a matter of opinion or personal belief, it seems that he tacitly invokes just such a pseudo-analysis. The only other route the relativist can take is to assert that ‘P disapproves of doing X’ needs no further gloss: it is a brute statement of disapproval that does not itself invoke the concept of wrongness (or rightness, goodness and the like). But then personal relativism collapses into emotivism, the theory that moral statements are just expressions of feeling or emotion and only appear to have the form of judgements that can he true or false. Emotivism is a different theory from relativism, however, and more will he said about it in the next section. Unless the personal relativist can give an analysis of disapproval that is neither circular, nor infinitely regressive, nor collapses his theory into emotivism, he is in severe difficulty; and it is hard to see just what such an analysis would look like.

David S. Oderberg, Moral Theory: A Nonconsequentialist Approach; Blackwell: Oxford, 2000; pp. 16-18.


In case it adds something, I will also append the write-up I made for Twitter:


Troy Leavitt on GamerGate and the Religion of Identity Politics

Game developer Troy Leavitt recently released a video on YouTube called GamerGate — Thoughts of a Game Developer. It’s very good, and I recommend you watch it.

But the thing that most caught my attention was his extremely clear and concise description of what he calls “The Religion of Identity Politics”—which could just as well be called “The Religion of Social Justice” (as I would probably call it) or “The Religion of Political Correctness.”

And he understands GamerGate, correctly, as a revolt against this aggressive Religion.

His words are good, so I am going to share them, because that’s what I do.



My explanation is that GamerGate was a consumer revolt against the Religion of Identity Politics.  I think the word ‘religion’ is the right word here, because there’s kind of a central dogma in identity politics, and that is that you are defined not by your behavior, not by your character, but by your demographic identifiers. For example, you start with your sex, whether you’re male or you’re female; then you move on to your race, whether you’re white, or black, or asian, or indian or whatever that might be; and then your sexual orientation, gay, straight, bi, and so forth—and this is supposed to be your political group. It’s how you’re supposed to be IDENTIFIED. And the Religion of Identity Politics goes on to say that the more rare your particular instances of demographics are, the more oppressed you are, and hence, the more righteousness within the religion you can assume. Conversely, the more commonplace are your demographics, the more oppressive you are, and hence the more evil secretly resides in your very existence.

To me, this is very much like original sin. If you just happen to be born into a majority position, within the Religion of Identity Politics, you are automatically sinful. Your behavior doesn’t really matter. That’s what they mean by ‘privilege’—it’s your position, you’re just born into it. Note that this is the exact opposite of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Now also within the religion, the only way you can really be redeemed is to accept your inherent sinful nature as on oppressor—to whatever degree that is—and you confess your demographic markers. You say, “I’m sorry I’m white, I’m sorry I’m male, I’m sorry I’m straight!” and then you promise, you promise to do better, to have a change of heart, to strive to overcome your inherently sinful ways. And you do that be denigrating yourself, by putting yourself down, and elevating others who might be in a more oppressed state. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. Within the Religion of Identity Politics, it’s purely your demographic.

Go back and look at those articles [about gamers] that all dropped on the same day of August 28, and you can see pretty clearly that they’re evangelizing this religion of identity politics. And they’re saying “This is the solution to this scandal we see over here.” The authors, the press people, were kind of like priests and priestesses of Identity.

No! I reject your religion. I reject what you’re saying about me! And I’m going to push back. I’m going to fight back against anybody who says I have to suddenly buy into your religion to be a good person.” To me, that’s what GamerGate was all about and what it continues to be all about.

It’s a rejection of the Religion of Identity Politics.

Can an Atheist be Moral?

You sometimes hear this question, “Can an atheist be moral?”

There’s a fallacious line of reasoning that would lead one to answer “No.”

There’s a much more plausible one that would lead one to answer “Yes.”

I’m going to explore these two lines, and then add my own judgment, “Not fully.”

(1) The fallacious line of reasoning is this:

  1. The basis of morality is God.
  2. An atheist rejects God.
  3. ∴ An atheist rejects the basis of morality.
  4. ∴ An atheist rejects morality itself.
  5. One who rejects morality itself cannot be moral.
  6. ∴ An atheist cannot be moral.

This line of reasoning isn’t insane, but it is invalid.  The error is that 4 doesn’t follow from 3.  What follows from 3 is “If an atheist is rationally consistent, he will reject morality, since he rejects the basis of morality.”  A rationally consistent atheist indeed logically ought to affirm nihilism, as Nietzsche makes so very evident, or Sartre, or more recently, philosopher Joel Marks, a Kantian ethicist for many years, who was finally, inexorably, led to the conclusion that atheist entails nihilism. See here.  Also, see my own article on Why Atheism Entails Absurdism and Nihilism.

But even if one is a theoretical nihilist, which an atheist rationally ought to be, no one can actually, practically, existentially be a nihilist.  Human beings are irreducibly moral creatures, and regardless of what one thinks, one will have an ethos, a moral character.  It might be a bad, vicious character, but it is impossible to be a human being without one; thus, all human beings are “moral” in this loose sense, that is, their lives express preferences and beliefs about what is good and bad.

(2) Not all atheists manage to draw the conclusion that atheism entails nihilism.  They often simply short-circuit the reasoning process—I suspect that people like Joel Marks, a philosopher, simply couldn’t live with the cognitive dissonance.  Others, such as Nietzsche and Sartre (in their different and characteristic ways) manage to take a perverse delight (of a sort, one which usually lives alongside despair) in nihilism.

I think, though, for the most part, most atheists are intellectually content to simply hand-wave the question of the foundation of morality, and give absurd answers such as “The basis of morality is society” or “the basis of morality is evolution.”

This is, I believe, really just a kind of ad hoc patch.  The atheist really does accept morality, just like everyone else (expect the sociopath and the very rare true nihilist), he is aware of moral truths like everyone else, and since he is aware of moral truths, that is, since he knows that there is such a thing as objective moral truth, he assumes that his acquaintance with this fact is sufficient to justify his acceptance of it.  In a way, it is, since acquaintance is one way in which we come to be rationally justified in knowing something exists.  In another way, it is not, since his atheism entails that he ought not to accept it, but to discount it as a kind of illusion.  Of course, on atheism, one really ought to account all the deliverances of reason as illusory or delusional or at the very least, untrustworthy—but that’s another matter.  The point here is that while the atheist does indeed have rational warrant for believing in morality, via direct acquaintance with moral reality, he or she also has a defeater for this warrant in his or her atheism itself.  The atheist is essentially in the position of holding: “M requires F to exist. F does not exist. Therefore M cannot and does not exist.  But at the same time, I am directly acquainted with M; therefore M does exist. Therefore M both does and does not exist.” M here stands for “morality” of course, and it is obviously a self-contradictory position to hold that morality both does and does not exist.

There are only two logically consistent ways to meet this dilemma: (1) the atheist can embrace nihilism and deny that morality exists (although he might still say that it has a kind of illusory being, in the way that moral relativists and moral subjectivists are able to talk about “morality” in kind of fictitious sense); this is the path of most intelligent atheists, such as Hume, Nietzsche, and Sartre, or (2) the atheist could accept the moral argument for the existence of God, and become a theist, since the existence of morality entails theism.

For the most part, though, atheists seem to sustain the cognitive dissonance of holding views inconsistent with atheism, by the simple expedient of not conceptually connecting the two ideas. Although it is not logically consistent with his atheism, nothing prevents an atheist from nevertheless using his conscience to be aware of moral truths, and he can easily share many of the same moral motivations as theists, for example, the peer pressure of social approval or disapproval, the fear of legal or social sanctions, and so forth. [ADDENDUM: After listening to Jacquelyn Glynn talk, I note yet ANOTHER way one can be inconsistent: one can firmly declare that morality does not, in fact, exist (since this does follow from atheism) AND also simply keep on making moral judgments, as if one’s conviction that morality does not exist is simply irrelevant to making moral judgments and decisions. I assumed the disconnect would have to lie in a spurious belief that morality can somehow be justified non-theistically; but apparently, one solution is just to reject morality in words, and keep being as moralistic as one pleases.]

While Christianity has a very definite moral teaching, the purpose of Christianity is not to foster moral behavior—indeed, Christianity tells us that we are fallen beings and that we will do evil, whether we think we want to or not.  Christianity is about salvation, and this is something that every human being needs, the moral and the immoral alike.

Two quotes are useful here.

First, Our Lord himself says in Luke 5:29-32

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table[d] with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

And St. Paul says in Romans 2,

14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

What do these two quotes together tell us?

Firstly, that it is sinners who are in the most dire need of the teaching of Christ.  We should no more be surprised to find the wicked among the Christians than we are to find the sick at a hospital.

Secondly, St. Paul’s quote points to the Christian teaching of the natural law, that all human beings have an awareness of right and wrong “written on their hearts” to which their “conscience bears witness.”

We have, in other words, a natural capacity to discern right and wrong (although this capacity is (a) darkened by sin, although not wholly obliterated, and (b) as enslaved by sin, we lack the power fully to do what we know is right and to refrain from what we know is wrong).

Now, a Christian may in some case receive a special grace of God which helps him or her resist temptation, but how could we say that God does not sometimes grant similar grace to atheists? God has His reasons for what He does.

I think the most we can say is that when normal motivations for right action and refraining from wrongdoing break down, an atheist will be left with considerably less to fall back on than a Christian.  Atheists, for example, are not known for their sustained efforts at charity: they have, like everyone else, an impulse to charity, but once it becomes a burden, the atheist has very little reason to persevere in it, especially when he realizes that much of what he does is, humanly speaking, futile.  Atheists often think they are trying to fix social ills, and should they conclude that a given problem is insoluble, they will often, “rationally” for a given value of rationality, stop trying to fix the problem; Christian charity, on the other hand, is not first and foremost about trying to solve or fix problems; we believe, in fact, that our deepest problems are simply not within our power to fix or solve.  That is not the task to which we are called.

(3) And this brings me to my answer.  An atheist should have a working conscience and can arrive at an understanding of the natural law without being a believer, so in what way would an atheist be at a disadvantage with respect to morality or virtue?

The only one I can think of is that an atheist cannot, eo ipso, have the virtue of piety.  An atheist will necessarily be vicious to a certain extent, since unbelief or infidelity is in itself a vice and a sin.

It follows that an atheist cannot ever be fully moral, no more than can, say, a thief.  A thief cannot be fully moral, because he is a thief; he steals, and stealing is, in itself, immoral. An atheist cannot be fully moral, because he is an atheist; he disbelieves, and unbelief is, in itself, immoral.  An atheist cannot properly honor God as God, nor grant Him the worship He is due, which is a violation of justice (to withhold something that is truly owed); an atheist must display the vice of ingratitude towards God, since he cannot be grateful to one whom he does not acknowledge even to exist.

An atheist will not, of course, consider impiety or unbelief a serious evil, or an evil at all.  But this very fact, properly understood, points not to the benignity of unbelief, but to a certain additional darkening of the intellect and corruption of the soul which is caused by unbelief.

I somewhat regularly post a remark of Fr. Josiah Trenham on Twitter, which is this:


Needless to say, this is not a remark that atheists like to hear.  But Father Josiah has very good reasons for saying this, not the least of which is that it is true.

Atheism is in itself a great intellectual and moral corruption and it leads to yet further intellectual, moral, and spiritual corruption.

So in this sense—which is not negligible—an atheist cannot be fully moral.

The Vices of Infidelity and Blasphemy

Some thoughts on Aquinas’ teaching on the vice of infidelity, by John Hacker-Wright, from the Florida Philosophical Review, Vol VIII, Issue 1, Summer 2008:

For Aquinas, disbelief or infidelity can arise in two ways, one of which is not blameworthy. Anyone who has not heard the call cannot be held accountable for failing to respond. Disbelief as a vice is the willed disposition not to believe. In the case of vicious disbelief, the truth is presented to the intellect, but the will turns the mind away from the truth (10, 3). For Aquinas, the most fundamental disposition behind such a refusal to believe is, of course, pride. Among the seven deadly sins, pride is, as Sirach 10:15 has it, the origin of all sin, for it is the intention to excel above God. Since this attempt implies at least one false belief about the nature and value of creatures, it leads to inordinate desires for temporal goods, namely, those goods whereby I would excel above God (1a2ae 84, 2).  Pride leads to contempt for God, whose greatness one wishes impossibly to surpass.

Now, blasphemy is associated with disbelief in that it consists of deliberately holding a false belief about God. The will and the intellect work together perversely in generating blasphemy. The will of the infidel who blasphemes is pridefully contemptuous of God. The infidel, because of this contempt, rejects the truth and embraces falsehoods about God. Even inwardly holding falsehoods about God is sufficient for blasphemy on Aquinas’ view (13, 1). Inwardly and intentionally forming a false proposition about God reveals a disbelieving disposition; it starts one on a course that, if continued, will render one utterly insensitive to truth, and thus, irretrievably separated from God. Blasphemy is therefore a major sin for Aquinas because it undermines an individual’s movement toward his chief end, the beatific vision. Of course, blasphemous thoughts that are published in any manner, whether through speech, writing, or artworks also perpetrate harm against others, on the assumption that the beatific vision is indeed their chief end and that their faith may be undermined in however small a way by the lies of the blasphemer.

In sum, for Aquinas, blasphemy is wrong because it is disorienting, both to the person who  articulates it (whether inwardly or outwardly) and potentially to others who come into contact with the blasphemy. The disorientation works like this: I start with a true apprehension of God, including his ultimate value, but I begin to want things, temporal goods such as money. If I sinfully give in to such desires, I gradually want to become the richest and perhaps the most famous; these ideals affect my beliefs about what is good in life. My choices have affected my intellect by giving me a false view of what is good. I am now disoriented. Gradually, I am won over by an ideal that involves wanting to be the best, but in my own manner as a creature; that is, I cannot, as a creature, be the greatest in the way God is, but I can be the greatest creature, and I want that way of being the greatest to be the greatest, period. The will enters here to sway the intellect to disbelief. I want to believe, and choose to believe that God either does not exist or is not good in the way that he is presented in scriptures. I make him out to be susceptible to the flaws of creatures. I will no doubt want others to share my false view of God, which I may eventually come to believe, in order that they might at least come to share my inflated vision of myself. I have come to base my life on a false vision of what is good. My will and my beliefs are oriented toward a hollow, illusory, and indeed, an impossible goal, and I strive to bring others to share these views and desires in order to shore up my own moral mirage. I have, in this case, made of my life a worthless sham, through rejecting a genuine end, and, worse yet, I may not even realize it.

Distributive Justice, Pattern Justice, Social Justice

Distributive justice is the kind of justice that is concerned with the distribution of goods.  Aristotle contrasts distributive justice with corrective justice, which “sets things straight” when there has been a violation of justice, either criminal or civil.

Aristotle further notes that distributive justice always involves some kind of idea of merit or desert, which will serve as the basis of the distribution.  Whether a distribution is regarded as just or not will depend on the standard of merit or desert brought to bear.

In some cases, a defective standard of desert will produce an obviously unjust distribution. For example, a racist might believe that his own race deserves more than other races (or that other races deserve less) just on the basis of using race as the criterion of desert.  Or again, in many legal situations (not all) Islam explicitly treats one man as worth the same as two women, so if a women deserves X, and man deserves 2X, just because he is a man.  Prima facie, these seem to be clear examples in injustice deriving from faulty standard of desert in seeking justice.

The philosopher Robert Nozick has argued that there are two basic kinds of theories of distributive justice, which I will call pattern theories and history of acquisition theories.

A pattern theory of distributive justice holds that a given distribution of goods, honors, wealth, income, and social opportunities is just if and only if it conforms to some sort of ideal rational pattern, e.g. “exactly equal for all” according to radical egalitarianism, or “whatever abstract pattern maximizes happiness” according to utilitarianism.

By contrast, a history of acquisition theory of distributive justice holds that a given distribution of goods is just if and only if all persons have acquired the goods they hold in the right way, e.g. via fair exchange.

Now, there is a good deal to criticize in Nozick, and I’m not endorsing him wholesale here, but this distinction seems cogent, as is the point he uses it to make:

Pattern theories of distributive justice are all necessarily incompatible with any significant amount of freedom or liberty for the simple yet profound reason that freedom disturbs patterns.

To illustrate this with an extreme example for clarity, suppose we adopt a radical egalitarian pattern theory and actually bring it about. We all have exactly an equal amount of wealth.  What am I free to do with my property? I cannot give away even the smallest amount of money to anyone, because the pattern would then be broken, and this would be, by definition, unjust.

And this will be the case regardless of what the pattern is: the free choices of agents will necessarily disrupt the pattern, which will then have to be restored, and for that matter, constantly maintained by coercive authoritarian force.

In other words, pattern theories of distributive justice necessarily destroy liberty and require authoritarian or even totalitarian policing to constantly force things to fit the pattern.

It goes without saying that Marxism is a paradigm case of a pattern theory, both in theory and in practice.

I also note that Social Justice is a pattern theory (not surprising, since it is cultural Marxism)—even if SJWs can never manage to say what the end state pattern is supposed to look like exactly.

Let me give another example. I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently (fun game, highly recommended), and one of the things you do is manage a number of Settlements, assigning your settlers to different jobs.  You need food providers and guards, and you can have stores, including a general store, clothing store, weapons store, a medical clinic, and a bar.

Let’s say I have the following set-up

2 slots for farmers

3 slots for guards

1 each of the 5 types of store.

Suppose I have 10 settlers, 5 men and 5 women.

And now suppose I want to use a feminist pattern theory of justice that requires 50/50 representation in all jobs.

It should be obvious that I can’t have a static pattern. The guards can’t be 50/50 male/female because there’s 3 slots: it would have to be 2 men and 1 woman, or 1 woman and 2 men.  As for the stores, each is unique, so there can’t be 50/50 representation there either. Each merchant must be either male or female.  I can have 1 male farmer and 1 female farmer; that’s about as static as I can get.

So, to achieve “feminist pattern justice” I would have to rotate jobs around such that the male settlers and the female settlers changed jobs 50% of the time.

The math would get somewhat complicated, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that I could indeed do it. (It wouldn’t be that complicated: my famers are already 50/50, I keep one full-time male guard, and one full-time female guard, which leaves 6 jobs: I just make 3 sets of 2, and switch them back and forth between a male and a female.)

I would now have ACHIEVED feminist pattern justice in my settlement where every job is worked exactly equally by men and woman, either full-time or 50% of the time.

Now suppose that my settlers were real people and not video game characters who will do whatever I tell them. Suppose I have it set up as described above: both farmers and two guards static, the others switching 50% of the time, including a male and a female who switch between the weapon store and the clothing store.

Okay, now suppose this: My full-time female guard would rather farm and my full-time male farmer would rather guard, and they WANT to switch jobs (which would leave me with only female famers and always more male guards than female guards!  Also, my 50/50 weapons store/clothing store minders talk it over, and the woman wants to work at the clothing store full-time (rather than half the time) and the man wants to work at the weapons store full-time rather than half.

May I allow them their “liberty” for their “pursuit of happiness”?

I may not. To do so would necessarily to be to disrupt the pattern as dictated by feminist pattern justice.  It would not only not be morally allowable for me to allow these deviations from the pattern, it would be morally obligatory upon me to force my settlers to fit the pattern.

And what if they grew angry and resentful at me for thwarting their freedom to make life choices which they (rightly) believe to be in their personal best interest, in their interests of happiness and a maximally good life? What justification can I give for my totalitarian interference with their liberty and my deliberate thwarting of their happiness?

Why, justice of course! Specifically, SOCIAL JUSTICE.

Under the rubric of Feminist Pattern Social Justice I not only may act in totalitarian matter, crushing the freedoms of others and significantly impairing their happiness, I MUST DO SO.  


Yet it seems evident that by controlling the choices of others in a directly totalitarian manner in order to force actual living individuals to conform to an abstract pattern is extremely unjust. It is, in fact, evil. Obviously evil. It would deny what some have described as self-evident truths that all persons have unalienable rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Following the ideal of Feminist Pattern Social Justice morally requires that I disregard the rights of others to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Nozick regards this as reductio refutation of pattern theories of distributive justice. The argument in simplest form would be:

  1. Pattern theories of distributive justice entail an unjust from of authoritarian control to force people to fit the pattern and the eradication of whatever freedoms that would disrupt the pattern, including rightful freedoms.
  2. No theory of distributive justice can be correct or just if it entails unjust authoritarian control over people and the eradication of some or all of people’s rightful freedoms.
  3. Therefore, no pattern theory of distributive justice can be correct or just.

This seems basically sound to me, and a fairly obvious point. If justice requires distribution according to an abstract pattern, then a great deal of coercive force will be needed to implement the pattern (I’m thinking of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot as real world examples) and an extreme and perhaps total curtailment of liberty will be necessary in order to prevent persons from using their liberty to make choices that disrupt the pattern.

And so I return to one of my perennial themes: ‘social justice’ is ethically wrong, because it violates justice, justice in its ordinary sense, without need of a qualifying adjective.

Therefore, I will continue to fight against social justice and SJWs in word and deed, wherever and however I can.

Material Fallacies and the Consensus Gentium

Aristotle always begins his philosophical investigations with a consideration of two starting points, the consensus gentium, that is, the consensus of mankind (if there is one) and the consensus of the wise, the consensus sapientium (if there is one).

Aristotle takes these as starting points of inquiry, not as end points, and he is not unreasonable to do so.

The consensus gentium is not an infallible guide to truth, as I noted in my last post about particles moving apart at the speed of light. On the other hand, as I also noted there, the consensus gentium is often “in the neighborhood of truth” and in a certain sense, represents nothing less than common human experience, which at some point must be foundational for human inquiry.

This point seems important to make, that while the consensus gentium is not an infallible demonstration of truth, it can serve as powerful evidence of truth.

Take an example: it belongs to the consensus gentium that time is linear and has three divisions, past, present, and future, and that it “moves” or things move in it from past to present to future.  The future does not come before the past, nor are things “in the future” before they are “in the past.”

Of course, the philosophical analysis of the nature of time is no easy matter. Almost all of you probably “seemed to yourself to understand” (a lovely Greek phrase) what I just said above, but what exactly did I mean by “before” when I said that the future cannot come “before” the past? Does talking about time always end up involving a kind of self-referential speech? It very possibly does, at least if Heidegger is correct that Being and time are always intertwined in the human cognition of Being—because talk about Being is (IS!) always necessarily self-referential.  Of course, self-referential discourse is not necessarily irrational, and it would be an error to cry “circular reasoning!” at every case of self-referential discourse.  Epistemology, for example, involves thinking about thinking or attempting to know about knowing, both of which seem entirely reasonable and possible to do.

To return to time, for a moment, it would seem that any theory of time which denied that time is linear and is made up of past, present, and future, would have to be a very compelling account indeed, to make it reasonable to reject these beliefs about time.  Our common human experience of time is simply too strong to reject easily.  Some of you may remember the “Hopi Time Controversy” in which linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued the Hopis have no concept of time (on the basis of the fact that the Hopi language does not have tensed verbs).  It created a sensation precisely because the idea of a people without an understanding of time is virtually unthinkable for human beings.  If some human beings could be that different from other human beings, human beings must be almost infinitely variable. So much for the idea of human nature! In the event, the fact that the Hopi do not use tensed verbs to express past, present, and future events was rather underwhelming; needless to say, the Hopi do understand time, and are perfectly capable of understanding and expressing distinctions of past, present, future, short time, long time, long ago, soon, not yet, just now, etc.  They just don’t do it by tensing their verbs. “Some languages do not express time by means of verb tenses” is not nearly as shocking a thesis as “some human communities do not have a concept of time.” The former is true, and only mildly interesting; the later would be amazing, if true—but it isn’t. The consensus gentium stands. All human beings understand time, and regard it as linear and dividing into past, present, and future.

It would certainly be fallacious to cry “ad populum fallacy!” at every appeal to the consensus gentium, just as it would be fallacious to cry “appeal to authority fallacy!” at every appeal to a consensus sapientium.

Suppose I wish to argue that “Einstein’s theory of general relativity is a sound theory in physics” and to demonstrate this, I point out that it is overwhelmingly accepted by contemporary physicists, and especially by those who do work in sub-field of cosmology, in which the theory of general relativity is most often required. Have I committed an appeal to authority fallacy by appealing to the consensus sapientium of physicists?

I have not. An appeal to authority can be fallacious, but it need not be.  It is perfectly reasonable to appeal to the scientific consensus on an issue, when there is one. The reason for this is one I have stated many times, but which cannot be stated often enough:

A material fallacy, i.e, an informal fallacy, is a fallacy because of its content (its “material”) not because of its form.  

And this leads to the following corollary:

Not everything that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious; whether or not something that has the form of a material fallacy is fallacious or not depends on the content.

This is a pretty basic logical point, but you would be surprised how often people think that pointing out that something has the same form as a material fallacy is enough to show that it is that material fallacy.  If pointing to the form were sufficient, the fallacy would be formal, in the way any argument of the form

  1. P ⇒ Q
  2. ¬P
  3. ∴¬Q
  1. If the President is in the White House, then the President is in the United States.
  2. The President is not in the White House.
  3. Therefore, the President is not in the United States.

is invalid.  This is denying the antecedent.

I apologize for insulting your intelligence with this diagram, but this point really does need to be hammered home at this level of simple-mindedness:


A few examples might also help:

  1. “Every brick in the wall weighs 2 kg; therefore the walls weighs 2 kg” is a fallacy of composition. “Every brick in the wall has mass; therefore, the wall has mass” or “every brick in the wall is red, so the whole wall is red” are not instances of the fallacy of composition.  Sometimes it is legitimate to argue from parts to the whole; sometimes it is illegitimate. Only the illegitimate cases are fallacious.
  2. Appealing to the scientific or philosophical consensus about an issue (if there is one) is not a fallacious appeal to authority but a legitimate appeal to authority when the authorities appealed to really are authorities in the relevant subject.
  3. Some slopes are slippery.  In some cases the argument, “We ought not accept A, because A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to D, which is very bad” is entirely sound.  A slippery slope argument is fallacious only in cases where B, C, and D do not necessarily follow upon A or do not follow with very high probability.    No one would think that “pointing a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulling the trigger” doesn’t reasonably lead to “the gun discharging a bullet into the person’s head” which leads to “the person shot in the head being killed.”  Someone crying “slippery slope fallacy!” at basic causal chains is an idiot.
  4. If I reason that M is a cat because M is the offspring of two cats, I have not committed a genetic fallacy.  Genetic reasoning is perfectly valid in many cases, since the efficient cause of something often does tell us what that thing is in essence.  This is true of ideas as well as material beings. If I know that Lysenkoism is a false and thoroughly discredited biological theory (which it is), I can reasonably dismiss all biological arguments which take Lysenkoism as their theoretical basis.
  5. Similarly, to argue that “Smith is a Lysenkoist and Lysenkoism is false, so Smith’s theories are false” is not to commit a fallacy of guilt by association.
  6. An ad hominem argument is merely a “personalized” argument, in which I argue from a proposition held by a given person P to a conclusion rejected by P, thereby showing that P’s beliefs are inconsistent. Socrates did this all the time, and although it may well be unpleasant to undergo, it isn’t fallacious.  Demonstrating that a given person’s beliefs are inconsistent is not a personal attack, because it suffices to show that at least one of the inconsistent beliefs is necessarily, objectively false. Similarly, to argue that “Alice has trouble attracting men because she is physically ugly and has a very unpleasant personality” is not an ad hominem attack on Alice.  It might not be the correct explanation of Alice’s trouble attracting men, and it might not even be the case that Alice has trouble attracting men—but it isn’t an invalid argument form.  Again, if Ken is a very stupid man who regularly makes invalid arguments using false premises, because he prefers to rationalize his narrow worldview rather than genuinely reason about the world, it is not an ad hominem argument to point this pattern out, and not unreasonable to stop taking Ken’s arguments seriously. Finally, insults and unwelcome or unflattering descriptions of a person don’t even have the form of an ad hominem and so cannot be instances of an ad hominem fallacy.  You would be amazed how many people on the internet think that an insult is an ad hominem fallacy.
  7. Next, if Jorge was born in Belize, to parents who are both natives of Belize, neither of whom has any ancestors who were Scottish or indeed ever visited Scotland, and Jorge has never been to Scotland, nor does Jorge speak a Scottish dialect (Jorge does not, in fact, even speak English), and indeed, Jorge has never heard of Scotland, then Jorge is not a true Scotsman.  Or, to put it succinctly, there are non-Scotsmen.  It is obvious lunacy to attempt to use the “no true Scotsman” fallacy to claim otherwise, that “Necessarily, all human beings are Scotsmen, since anyone denying that a given person is a Scotsman always necessarily commits the no true Scotsman fallacy.”
  8. A reductio ad absurdum is a valid form of refutation. It can appear to have the same form as a fallacious appeal to the consequences of a belief.  “If P is true, then I would be sad; therefore, P is false” is fallacious. “If P is true, then Q is true, and Q is absurd; therefore P is false” is valid.  It is in fact just modus tollens: P ⇒Q; ¬Q; ∴¬P.
  9. I’ll give one more, because it comes up so often in debate about God. Special pleading is a fallacy wherein one makes an exception to a general rule for someone or something on the basis of an irrelevant characteristic of that person or thing. It gets its name from the action of pleading, without sufficient justification, that a given case be treated as special, that is, as different from all other relevantly similar cases.  One is not engaging in special pleading when one can give sufficient justification that the case in question should be treated differently: my standard example of this is the special exception to speed limits that the law affords police officers in pursuit of a criminal, ambulances racing to the emergency room, and fire trucks racing to a fire; one is not engaging in special pleading when one argues that these exceptions to speed limits are legitimate: one can rationally justify these exceptions to the general rule.  Concerning God, atheists should accept that if God is what theists say God is, then God is utterly and completely sui generis, that is, completely in a category of His own with respect to everything else and in all cases.  As far as I can tell, by the very definition of God, it is impossible to commit a fallacy of special pleading in respect to God.  The essence of special pleading is to treat something relevantly the same as something else as if it were different or special; but God is, necessarily, completely different from everything else, and so is, by definition, a unique and special case in all respects. This is the concept of God that theists are using. It is not special pleading to treat something special as special; it is only special pleading to treat something not special as if it were special. That’s the fallaciousness of the fallacy. An atheist cannot reasonably object to theists using such a concept of God, even if it does have the effect of immunizing God from special pleading.  So what? That is not the reason the concept is used.  The concept is used because that is what we theists mean by God.

Bill Vallicella, The Maverick Philosopher, makes our next point, which is actually just my point, plus some good practical advice:


Since material fallacies are not always fallacious, it is very useful to try to determine under what general circumstances something that has the apparent form of the fallacy in question is not fallacious.

Vallicella does this with the No True Scotsman fallacy in this post. Ironically, one of the circumstances Vallicella correctly points out is

4. When the original assertion specifies the content of a belief-system or worldview. Suppose I point out that Communists are anti-religion, believing as they do that it is the opiate of the masses, an impediment to social progress, the sigh of the oppressed, flowers on the chains that enslave, etc. You say you know people who are Communists but are not against religion. I am entitled to the retort that such ‘Communists’ are not Communists at all; they are not true or real or genuine Communists, that they are CINOs, Commies in Name Only, etc. I have not committed the fallacy under discussion.

Back to the Muslims. A Muslim is so-called because of his adherence to the religion, Islam. There are certain core beliefs that are definitive of Islam, and thus essential to it, and that a Muslim must accept if he is to count as a Muslim. To take a blindingly evident example, no Muslim can be an atheist. Also: no Muslim can be a trinitarian, or a pantheist, or a polytheist, or believe in the Incarnation. And of course there are more specific doctrines about the Koran, about the prophet Muhammad, etc., that are essential to the faith of Muslims.

Now suppose I point out that Muslims deny that Jesus is the son of God. You reply that your Muslim friend Ali accepts that Jesus is the son of God. Then I commit no fallacy if I retort that Ali is no true Muslim.

I call this ironic because the “No True Scotsman” fallacy was discovered or invented or first articulated and named by Antony Flew.  Antony Flew, as some of you know, was probably the most influential atheistic philosopher of the 20th century, and his three most noteworthy accomplishments were:

  1. Identifying and naming the No True Scotsman fallacy.
  2. Attempting to redefine “atheist” to mean “one who lacks a belief in God” rather than “one who believes there is no God,” a move that became ubiquitous in professional philosophy for a couple decades (the 70s and 80s, roughly), but which was undone almost single-handedly by the work of Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame.  This trick doesn’t actually give the atheist the epistemic advantage he seeks—it gives only a rhetorical advantage and so is intellectually dishonest, a piece of sophistry.  Alas, Flew’s legacy is alive and well among “garden variety” atheists, especially on the internet, even if the maneuver has been thoroughly discredited among professional philosophers of religion. On the other hand, philosophy is often stochastic, and thus a reliable predictor of intellectual debate in the future. “Lack of belief” atheists, your days are numbered. Enjoy your rhetorical trick while you can. The same arguments that crushed it in philosophy will eventually make their way into popular discourse, where it will be crushed for the second time (something which has happened time and again in the history of ideas).
  3. And finally for discovering, in his eighties, through a careful study of Aristotle, that there is, in fact, a God; and for openly declaring this, thus proving himself in this instance at least, a true philosopher.  It takes true philosophical courage to admit that the position that one has literally dedicated one’s entire life and philosophical career to defending is wrong. Flew’s change of mind would be comparable to Richard Dawkins’ announcing his conversion to Catholicism.  Well, perhaps slightly less shocking, because Flew understood that he needed to base his atheism on sound reasoning.

Back to the matter at hand. Vallicella’s point about the No True Scotsman fallacy is ironic because Flew primarily wanted to deploy it against adherents of belief-systems or worldviews, specifically against adherents of various religions.  But that is one of the places where it won’t WORK.  Being a Christian or being a Muslim is not like being a Scotsman.

As I have pointed out before, there are such things as XINOs, or “Xs in name only.”

And we often have pretty clear criteria to differentiate between Xs and non-Xs (XINOs and pseudo-Xs are non-Xs).  For example, anyone who rejects the Shahada, who rejects the claim that “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet” is NOT a true Muslim.  Similarly, I would say that rejection of the Nicene Creed or embrace of an anathematized heresy such as Arianism or Pelagianism or Docetism makes one NOT a true Christian.  There are also MINOs and CHRINOs, “Muslims in name only” and “Christians in name only” who claim to believe the Shahada or the Nicene Creed respectively, but who do not, merely giving it lip service to fit in with their surrounding culture; such people are not true Muslims or true Christians.  Neither are Christian heretics true Christians.  It is, in fact, virtually the definition of a heretic that he or she is a pseudo-Christian (“pseudo” means “false” or “fake”); we call them Christian heretics not because they are Christians, but because they are, specifically, pseudo Christians; that is, they look like Christians but are not.  The word “Christian” in the phrase “Christian heretic” works exactly like the word “gold” in “fool’s gold.”  The fact that CHRINOs and Christian heretics CLAIM to be Christians is beside the point; it is also beside the point that some of them may even BELIEVE they are Christians.

I doubt it is an accident that the No True Scotsman fallacy was discovered in our time, when we have decided that anyone can be anything at all, if only they “identify” as that.  A few years back, there was a woman who was a Christian minister who “converted” to Islam—but wished to keep her job as the minister of a Christian church, on the grounds that she was still a Christian, despite her conversion to Islam. She was, she declared, BOTH a Muslim and a Christian. I hope I don’t need to spell out why it is, in fact, impossible to be both these things.

I’ve drifted away from the point I set out to argue in this post, which was going to be that theism ought to be regarded as the rational default position on the basis of the consensus gentium, and that the onus probandi, insofar as there even is such a thing outside formal contexts wherein it is stipulated, falls on the atheist.

Atheists are fond of the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Fair enough. They go wrong, however, in thinking that the existence of God is an “extraordinary claim.” On the contrary, it is the ordinary claim of all ordinary persons in all times and places. On the basis of the consensus gentium, which has been overwhelmingly in favor of theism in all times and places, it is the non-existence of God or the divine that would be a very extraordinary claim, and would indeed require truly extraordinary evidence.

As far as I can tell, the only evidence ever offered is “I, personally, do not believe in God or the divine,” which of course proves nothing, and to which my normal mental response (if not always my verbal one) is: “What’s wrong with you then? Are you just ignorant, or are you cognitively impaired in some way?” It is usually one of those two. In my experience, the majority of atheists either don’t know what it means to think there is no God (they think it is to lack a belief in a “noisy mythological entity” like the Tooth Fairy or a god such as Thor or Horus). But there are some atheists who seem to have a genuine hole in their soul which renders them completely blind to the numinous.  Atheists, it seems to me, are thus comparable to moral relativists or to sociopaths: the former almost never believe what they say, and do in fact know the difference between good and evil and right and wrong, even while claiming not to at a purely abstract theoretical level; they are simply ignorant of the fact that their concrete beliefs are inconsistent with their “grand theory” (this is extraordinarily common among college freshmen—all one needs to do is do some sort of injustice to them, and they well begin to complain loudly, having discovered they do, in fact, believe in justice, when it is denied them. ADDITION: You don’t even have to do that much: the same students will happily check a box which says “All morality is subjective” and one which says “Rape is always morally wrong, for everyone, everywhere, at any time.” The don’t even KNOW that they have conflicting beliefs.).  Sociopaths, on the other hand, really do seem incapable of distinguishing good and evil, right and wrong, and this because of a radical cognitive deficiency on their part. Some atheists seem to have a comparable sort of cognitive blindness with respect to the divine.  Much consideration and experience has led me to the view that many atheists are not atheists because of faulty reasoning, but because of a deeper fault in their cognitive abilities.

Since it would be virtually impossible for a cognitively blind atheist to be a believer, I can only assume that this issue will be addressed by God upon the atheist’s death, in whatever way is best.

I’ll have to take up the case for the consensus gentium as the rational default position another time. The things about material fallacies needed to be said, so my time was well spent, even if not quite as I planned.